Purposely setting fires to reintroduce “good” fire to Marin’s landscape could be the key to lowering the risk of catastrophic infernos in the county, some fire officials say.
The tactic, known as prescribed burning, might seem counterintuitive. But it’s a time-honored technique for forest management that shouldn’t be overlooked, said Bruce Goines, a retired forester who worked for more than four decades for the U.S. Forest Service and now serves as board president for the new Marin Wildfire Prevention Authority.
“The problem is that people don’t like smoke, whether it’s from a wildfire or a prescribed fire,” Goines said. “The primary barrier to using prescribed fire is public acceptance.”
Prescribed fires are carefully planned events that require vigilant attention. Firefighters typically schedule them for days with light wind before winter rains arrive. Fire crews create fuel breaks around the burn area in order to box the fire in, and use drip torches to light the landscape ablaze.
In some cases, the fires are set on steep slopes choked with vegetation. Such areas are nearly inaccessible to land management crews, which normally remove vegetation by hand, or using tools such as chainsaws, mowers and masticators. Prescribed burns can reduce fire fuels in areas that would otherwise be tough to reach, Goines said, and they can do it more quickly and efficiently.
“The issue,” Goines said, “is that lighting things on fire purposely is dangerous.”
An unexpected wind shift could cause a prescribed burn to grow out of control, he said. If the burns are happening near residential areas, the consequences could be devastating.
“When you’re burning close to someone’s home, it makes people really nervous,” said Marin County fire Capt. Jordan Reeser, a former prescribed fire specialist for the National Park Service.
The majority of prescribed burns in Marin are conducted in open space areas far from neighborhoods, such as the Point Reyes National Seashore. According to Reeser, the National Park Service plans to intentionally burn about 200 acres of forested land in the seashore this year. The Marin Municipal Water District, which also uses prescribed fire to manage its land, is aiming to burn about two dozen acres in 2020, he said.
Though prescribed burns can be controversial, both because of the risks they pose and the poor air quality they produce, Reeser considers them essential.
“The only way we’re going to help slow catastrophic fires is to start reintroducing prescribed fire on the ground,” Reeser said.
On average, less than 50 acres of land annually in Marin are burned using prescribed fires, said Marin County fire Chief Jason Weber. In order to restore the county’s overgrown forests to a healthy state, he said, that number would have to increase dramatically, to about 10,000 acres per year.
“If we treated 10,000 acres a year we’d probably be on a cycle that would really make a difference after 15 years,” he said. “But it would have to be that substantial to move the needle.”
A century of aggressive fire suppression has created the ideal conditions for dangerously large wildfires in Marin County and throughout California, Weber said.
“Fire has been a natural part of the ecosystem, but we humans have disrupted that and taken it away,” he said.
Marin’s forests are too dense, and the recent drought killed many of the trees within them, Weber said. Climate change, he added, has created hotter and drier conditions that will continue to make the problem worse.
Weber considers prescribed burning “an important tool in the toolbox” for responding to Marin County’s fire-prone conditions, but he said there are other pertinent tools that must also be used in conjunction with it. His top priority is improving evacuation routes throughout the county and “hardening” homes against the threat of fire by improving defensible space around them and using fire-resistant construction materials. Fuel-reduction projects in the county’s open spaces also tops the list.
“This is a massive problem, and it’s going to take all kinds of different approaches,” he said.
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Author: Matthew Pera