Controlled Burning: Is It Worth It?


Blane Heumann is director of fire management for The Nature Conservancy.

On August 26, a controlled burn (also known as a prescribed fire) got away from a federal fire crew in Yosemite National Park. The Big Meadow fire, which was planned to span one day and 91 acres, is being mopped up today after having spread across more than 7,400 acres of the park. The town of Foresta was evacuated for several days because of the blaze.

Like other escaped fires before it, this incident has raised awareness of a fact that every prescribed fire practitioner knows: No matter how careful you are, no matter how much training your staff have received, any time you light a match, there’s a chance that something will go wrong.

Maybe the wind picks up unexpectedly and the fire jumps the firebreak, contingency plans fail, and a barn, a house or a pine plantation burns. Or maybe some piece of equipment fails and somebody working on the fire gets hurt. Then there’s the smoke to worry about… It’s a fair question: With so much at stake, is it worth it?

First, there’s a lot that can be done to minimize the chance that something will go wrong. And a lot can be done to respond to unexpected events and contain or minimize unfavorable outcomes. In fact, as The Nature Conservancy’s director of fire management, it’s my full-time job to maintain and improve our fire staff’s ability to anticipate and respond to the unexpected. And the Conservancy staff’s record is one that considerably exceeds U.S. averages for both safety and operational cost efficiency. But yes, we are not, nor will we ever be perfect.

Second, the decision to burn or not to burn is made on a place-by-place basis. Some areas are inherently more difficult to burn safely than others, and it’s also true that some landscapes will benefit from fire more than others. We burn where and when our calculus indicates that the benefits to biodiversity far outweigh the costs and potential negative consequences. So it’s a matter of striking the right balance, and I believe that the Conservancy as well as our partners are generally prudent in this regard. But again, as the Big Meadow Fire shows, not perfect.

Most terrestrial ecosystems in North America need fire — to one degree or another — to persist. I’ve never been to Yosemite, but it’s possible, maybe even likely, when all is said and done the Big Meadow fire will have a net positive impact ecologically, and improve habitat for wildlife such as mule deer and cavity-nesting birds.

Perhaps it will reduce fuels in that portion of the park, thereby allowing future managers to let naturally ignited fires take their course. And who knows — maybe the fire will even help some of the affected areas better withstand future climate change impacts.

With 80 percent of U.S. forests and rangelands moderately or severely degraded, and with climate change making the situation worse, something needs to be done. In places where it’s not safe to let naturally ignited wildfires burn, that “something” is often controlled burning.

With more than 30 state-based fire programs that have collectively burned more than a million acres since the 1960’s, the Conservancy is working hard to do its part. (We also get a lot of help on the fireline from federal agencies and other partners.)

In some ways, it’s getting harder for land managers to maintain our current levels of burning, let alone ramp up efforts to make a bigger difference. More and more people are building homes in and around natural areas. While the majority of Americans do understand tlhat fire can play a vital role in nature, people are also quite fearful of fire, especially when someone is planning a controlled blaze close to their neighborhood.

It’s important to realize that prescribed burning can have direct benefits for people as well as nature. For example, many ranchers know that a well-timed fire can improve forage for livestock. And some experts think proactive controlled burning might have prevented the deadly Station fire near Los Angeles.

So fire practitioners must weigh a whole host of potential benefits against the actual and potential costs, and it’s conceivable that we could be taking a risk when we decide not to burn. Clearly this is not easy. But is it worth it? The answer is a qualified yes.

(Image: Bird’s nest in Shawangunk Mountains — wildlife commonly persists, and sometimes thrives, in fire’s immediate aftermath. Credit: Gabe Chapin/TNC.)

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  1. Good article. I would think the decades of fire prevention would also contribute to the difficulty of keeping a fire under control. With so much land that has been un-burned for so long, the amount of dry brush and fuel must be extreme in some areas.

  2. Living in the Flint Hills, I see the effects on the tallgrass prairie when fire is taken out of the ecosystem. Most of the ranchers have kept the prairie in a healthy condition with controlled burns and we can see the positive effects of fire in Conservancy-related sites like the Tallgrass Prairie National Preserve and the Konza Prairie Biological Station. But there are too many places in the hills where burning has been halted and in a few short years the eastern redcedars take over and wipe out the prairie ecosystem. So around here, I would remove the word “qualified” from your last sentence.

  3. How long will prescribed burning be a viable tool in all but the remotest areas? As wild areas are being invaded with communities, houses and resorts, planning and implementing prescribed burns becomes more difficult. Climate change may also be narrowing or closing the burning window in many areas. Land managers are forced to make razor edge decisions because of limited windows, budget constraints, “use it or lose it funding”, hard acreage “targets” and crew commitments. Other factors such as concern by residents about fire in their “neighborhood” and concern about smoke and health issues. Several years ago, while on a fire in Arizona, I talked to a State Forester from North Carolina about his prescribed burn program. He said that over the last decade the acreage they burned was down to only a fraction of the previous decade. The decline was mainly due to the fact that thousands of new homes had been built in rural areas and people just didn’t like the smoke. They just couldn’t handle the public relations issues. Things may have changed since then, but I doubt it.

  4. Nature Conservancy’s fire management is one reason I rejoined. I own forest land in Virginia and attend lots of seminars on land management. I always find Nature Conservancy people there and they understand the need for fire. This is a great article. Thank you.

  5. I don’t understand why nobody is looking at the health effects on these “prescribed” burns that often get out of control. They are commonplace in Northern Arizona where the winds blow constantly. Therefore the smoke drifts to places far away from the ignition site, causing health problems for people. I have asthma and am always adversely affected by the smoke from these fires. The burns have been conducted in my neighborhood as well and I can’t begin to calculate how much $$ I lost going to the doctor and/or having to leave town because of the severity of the smoke. When the burns were conducted near my school I couldn’t attend class or go to work, so that equates to more $$ lost, not to mention my health. I was pregnant one summer when a dark cloud of thick smoke took over my city and I had a few minutes to pack because I had to leave. Phones weren’t working and people were advised to be on “standby” in case the fire and smoke got worse. NOT a way to live at all. I couldn’t afford to move and shouldn’t have to because some idiots want to play with fire.

  6. I do not think prescribed burning should be looked at in terms of cost without giving a fair assessment of the benefits. Years of fire suppression have put our forests at risk. Mother Nature has responded with epidemic Mountain Pine Beetle infestations in our lodgepole pine forests. A natural fire regime in these forest and a corresponding mosaic pattern of numerous even-aged stands has enormous benefits which far out-way the costs. Lest we forget, the benefit to man alone in terms of reduced fuel loading is significant. Yellowstone has greatly benefited from fire. The 1988 fires were to a large extent nature’s retaliation, and the subsequent benefits to wildlife alone are significant. My biggest fear is that the National Park Service will curtail its prescribed burning efforts and let-burn policy. The fuel loadings associated with the ’88 burns are excessive and need a innovative response by fire management.

    Fire suppression has also had a detrimental effect on Mule Deer populations by allowing western juniper to encroach into bitterbrush ecosystems. Now that the western juniper are established, their allelopathic properties make the juniper stands resistant to light burning eradication. The loss of winter range feed for the Mule Dear is a significant cost.

    I look forward to the day when fire will never need to be “controlled” in our forests and suppression costs are not necessary.

  7. The Nature Conservancy makes alot of money burning forests. In the case of the Linville Gorge Wilderness they have proven their motives untrustable. TNC told the public that fire has been absent and they need to burn this spectacular old growth forest with diverse species. Nothing could be further from the truth, already 4,000 of its 12,000 acres were burned by lighning and escaped camp fire on the drier southern end, the upper 4,000 acres are part of a temperate rain forest receiving 67″ of rain a year and no regular fire regime. We hear the same sales pitch where ever TNC goes, fire has been suppressed for 50 years and its ruining our forests, regardless of the locale or whether there has been fire.

    To give you an idea about the ethics of TNC note that in 2010, The Washington Post reported that TNC “has accepted nearly $10 million in cash and land contributions from BP and affiliated corporations”; it counts BP, Chevron, ExxonMobil and Shell among the members of its Business Council; Jim Rogers, CEO of Duke Energy, one of the largest US coal-burning utilities, sits on its board of directors.

    1. Interesting, thanks for the info.

  8. I think fuel loading and the threat of mega fires is played up by some groups. In most areas, weather conditins play a significantly larger role than fuel load when it comes to a fire’s intensity.

  9. Quit playing GOD. I put human health requirements before the intentional burning of the forest and the costs we MIGHT have to spend to put out a fire mother nature starts. As it is now, I can’t breath the fresh air or have my windows open due to these prescribed burns. I can’t live MY life. I’ve had enough.

  10. What about the health of our kids? I buy organic fruit, veggies, soap, lotion, cleansers, etc……then my kids have to breathe smoke in their sleep because it’s so bad outside that even 2 air purifiers are not enough to keep it smoke-free inside. My eyes hurt, and it’s so frustrating to just sit back and be forced to do nothing while those in charge are poisoning the people with controlled burns. And what about all the poor defenseless animals caught in those burns? It’s not like they round them up and evacuate them beforehand.

    1. I agree with you and I spend $$$$ every year on medication due to the allergy from these burns. Last year it took me six months to overcome what started with an allergy to the smoke from a burn. I finally had to leave the state and was over the allergy in just a day. I think it is time the public filed a lawsuit to stop these burns.

  11. In the past I haven’t minded the burns. I understand the reasoning for them entirely, and have actually taken a few forestry courses. I have always supported the burns. However, right now as I type this, the smoke outside is so thick I can it seeping into the house through cracks around the door. Its impossible to breath outside and I have never seen it so thick. I can understand now why people don’t like these burns. I think when implemented correctly the fires burn fast and produce little smoke. I stepped onto the porch for 5s (literally) and now smell like I’ve spent an entire night sitting on the downwind side of a campfire.

    1. not to mention the levels of dioxin released. its a dirty little secret the forest service doesn’t want you to know. think of all those wildland firefighters and the amount of dioxins they are exposed to.

  12. Prescribed burning (what a stupid term) does not really emulate a natural process as only about 10% of wildfires are caused by lightning and lava flows. Remember, thunderstorms also produce rain, sleet, snow, and hail (all forms of precipitation). Not to mention most lightning strikes do not hit the ground. Most are either intracloud (contained within one cloud) or intercloud (cloud to cloud). What’s more is that most lightning induced forest fires are caused by positively charged lightning strikes, which account for 25% or fewer of lightning strikes.

    The only good thing about prescribed fire is that for a short term, they do reduce tick populations. However, the long-term harm they do far outweighs any potential benefit they bring. I do and will always oppose so-called prescribed burns.

    1. Right. Prescribed (deliberate) burns do not mimic real burns. They are done simply because they are much cheaper to conduct. The real missing element in all of this is what is the impact (or lack of) of certain keystone species.
      The recent revelation of the impact of reintroduced wolves had upon the Yellowstone ecosystem (following a major fire) is telling. Yet practically all fire ecology research seems to ignore the impact of predators and other species. I think the field of Fire Ecology has been hijacked by land managers who look for justification for their land clearance policies i.e. rational for their interference.

  13. Right now I’m having another endless asthma nightmare. It’s August 3, and I just read a story about how some stupid “controlled burn” idiots dropped “fire bombs” from a helicopter in Canada and murdered a herd of somebodies cows and now their out of controlled burn has saturated the whole state of Washington with smoke. What kind of a dumbo does it take to intentionally start fires in dry AUGUST? Stupid! Sick of the lies saying it’s “good” to murder forest animals and asthmatic children. Get a clue!

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