Author(s): Lucian Deaton. Published on May 2, 2016.

The Right Prescription

Why prescribed burning can be a critical tool in many WUI communities


IN MARCH, an article in the Albuquerque Journal offered a good illustration of the debate around prescribed burning. Under the headline “A burning question facing our forests,” the article proceeded to outline a local tug-of-war that is playing out in one form or another in communities across the country.

In this case, the flare-up was in Santa Fe, where the city council had recently approved a plan that included prescribed burning to restore and maintain the city’s municipal watershed. These issues are closely linked because destructive wildfires that remove forests and their canopies can lead to soil erosion, flooding, and water-quality problems. Opponents of the plan claimed prescribed burns do more harm than good to wildlands and lead to air-quality issues and increased carbon release into the atmosphere, hastening climate change.

Spring is the season for prescribed burning, and it’s when the debate bubbles up in communities from New Mexico to New Jersey. What we know is that, as our natural landscapes are developed into the wildland/urban interface (WUI), and as the WUI becomes someone’s backyard, the historic role of fire in that landscape is all but removed. Where wildfire used to help maintain a healthy balance of natural growth, soil fitness, and removal of dead biomass, humans, with our urban structural perception of fire, now have to provide those functions ourselves, and each method comes with its own costs.

Using fire prescriptively is another option, one that is time-tested and scientifically proven. Prescribed burns are an effective way to return to a semblance of the healthy and recurring landscapes that existed before human development. Lands subjected to controlled burns are not set alight arbitrarily. Done correctly, prescribed fires remove underbrush, not forests, with a steady hand, and the National Wildfire Coordinating Group sets burn plan review elements so the resource goals and prescription parameters are clear. Controlling fire requires state and local agencies to balance multiple variables with goals for ecological benefit.

Additionally, prescribed burns must focus on emissions and air quality, concentrating on wind, humidity, and temperature. Reports are received from the National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration, and conditions are monitored to allow smoke to disperse based on atmospheric stability, with attention to increasing winds and inversion conditions. Shifting winds can cause smoke or embers to drift into a community, putting people and property at risk—homes have been destroyed by wildfires that began as prescribed burns but managed to escape human control. Alerts must be provided well in advance to help those at risk and to ensure the public understands what will occur, when it will happen, and why.

Fire is an influence to be feared in the urban structural environment, but fire can play a positive role in the WUI. Prescribed fire allows us to decide when there will be a little smoke in the air instead of a wildfire that dictates the smoke and destruction on its own terms. Where fire would once consume entire cities, we developed building techniques and safety standards to control its impact. We need to adopt a similar course in the WUI, which demands a shift in fire response as development encroaches into natural areas. Done correctly, prescribed burning is an essential part of the solution.

LUCIAN DEATON manages the Firewise Communities and Fire Adapted Communities Programs in NFPA’s Wildland Fire Operations Division. Top Photograph: Getty Images