THE CASE FOR PRESCRIBED BURNING
BY LAURA KING
There has been a theme in the last few issues of Wildfire magazine.
In stories about Spain (Q4-2021), Argentina and Australia (Q1-2022) and now Greece, the authors use words such as aggressive, megafires, and sixth-generation to describe what are now familiar situations – record wildfire seasons – and the need for policy change.
Whether the proposed solutions are prescribed and/or cultural burning, prevention, education, or all three, the pleas by high-level wildfire scientists sound similar no matter the location.
As IAWF board member Gavriil Xanthopoulos and colleagues Miltiadis Anthanasiou and Konstantinos Kaoukis write in this issue, government spending to hire more firefighters may help in an immediate crisis but preventing the crisis in the first place is a better option.
Greece should, the authors say, adopt a “Formal introduction of the use of fire in fire suppression – a time-honored technique, necessary in indirect attack, which has been forgotten in Greece in the last few decades.”
As Xanthopoulos was writing the story in March about the remarkable 2021 fire season, the Greek government introduced a law recognizing that fire can be used as a firefighting tool when considered necessary by the fire service; details have yet to be worked out, which makes the initiative too late for the 2022 fire season, but it’s a step forward.
The authors, and others, also recommend creation of a legal framework for prescribed burning for fuel reduction and other forest land management objectives, and recognition that all forest fires are not bad.
As Xanthopoulos notes, “Even under the extreme conditions of 2021, within some portions of the burned areas, fire severity was relatively low either due to the presence of less flammable species or because of the resilient agroforestry landscape.”
Which brings us to the lesser prairie-chicken, “a dull, brownish, football sized grouse found in the southern Great Plains of North America,” according to writers Nicholas Parker and Daniel Sullins.
Although these fabulous creatures are resilient, their habitat is shrinking.
“The increase in megafires throughout the lesser prairie-chicken range poses yet another potential threat to the already declining species,” Parker and Sullins say.
“Although prairie-chickens are adept at avoiding small fires, many may be killed in the path of fast moving and intense megafires.”
“When prescribed fire is used in conjunction with grazing in a patch burn grazing system, it is especially beneficial for lesser prairie-chickens,” the authors say.
Unfortunately, the authors note, prescribed fire is not a common practice in the grassland region occupied by the lesser prairie-chicken, rather suppression is the dominant practice.
That said, local grazing groups and prescribed burn associations (PBAs) have made some progress and are providing information to landowners who are becoming interested in using prescribed fire.
IAWF communications committee member Jennifer Fawcett knows a thing or two about PBAs. Fawcett, the subject of our Fired-up feature, is completing a doctorate in education, exploring educational needs of Prescribed Burn Association members.
“PBAs have successfully increased prescribed fire use by landowners and land managers, mainly by making it easier and safer to use,” Fawcett says. “In 2020 alone, one PBA in North Carolina safely conducted 48 burns on 4,600 acres and has a membership of more than 300 people.”
Leyna Quinn-Davidson also writes about PBAs in this issue.
In 2017, Quinn-Davidson and some colleagues brought the PBA model to California; now there are more than 18 grassroots prescribed fire groups “training community members, implementing burns, and inspiring their neighbors and agency partners.”
Imagine, Quinn-Davidson writes, “Homes are hardened and communities are fluent in fire, and backyards, parks, and nearby forests are a patchwork of blacks and greens, depending on when they were last burned. More people are trained in prescribed fire than not, and states have fully assumed liability for their essential work.”
It sounds radical, and, it turns out, it is.
“Radical imagination,” Quinn-Davidson explains, “is the ability to imagine the world, life, and social institutions not as they are, but as they might otherwise be.”
Quinn-Davidson and her colleagues are optimists.
“We can envision a future in which local and traditional knowledge are guiding this work,” she writes.
“We can envision landowners and land managers having a deep comfort with fire and using it regularly. We can envision holding on to our remaining forests, woodlands, and prairies, threading the needle between too much and not enough fire. We can envision people from all backgrounds being trained and certified as burn bosses and effectively leading this work, with real incentives and protections from the state. We can imagine what future generations might thank us for, and we are trying our best to do it.”
That’s good news for California, and, if the model succeeds, for the rest of North America, for the lesser-prairie chicken, and, perhaps, for Greece.