California

Fighting fire with fire: Should California burn its forests to protect against catastrophe?

It seemed like a good day for a fire — the kind that could safely thin out an overgrown forest, eliminate combustible underbrush and reduce the risk from an out-of-control wildfire like the ones that have devastated California communities in recent years.

But when a lightning strike ignited a small fire May 10 in the Tahoe National Forest, on a relatively cool day in an area still green from winter rains, federal firefighters did what they almost always do: They raced to snuff it out. The Sugar Fire in the foothills east of Sacramento was fully contained within two days, before it could spread beyond 65 acres.

Seven months after the Camp Fire killed 85 people and destroyed much of Paradise, and with another potentially catastrophic wildfire season getting underway, a growing body of experts say California is neglecting a major tool in its battle against mega-fires: the practice of fighting fire with fire.

These experts say state and federal firefighting agencies should allow more fires that don’t threaten the public to run their natural course. What’s more, they say fire agencies should conduct more “prescribed” burns — fires that are deliberately set, under carefully controlled conditions, to reduce the fuels that can feed a disaster.

“Nothing affects fire like fire,” said Timothy Ingalsbee, executive director of Firefighters United for Safety, Ethics & Ecology in Eugene, Ore. “If we don’t start applying a lot more fire now, while conditions are still somewhat amenable to fire control, years ahead — given climate change — it’s just going to be really an untenable situation.”

The Sugar Fire this month, an unplanned fire that ignited soon after a wet winter, was “doing good ecological work for free,” said Ingalsbee, a former firefighter with the U.S. Forest Service and National Park Service. “Later on, they’ll have to put another fire out at big expense.”

In California, the debate over prescribed burns is complicated by a deadly history with wildfires that have grown quickly out of control, the state’s stringent environmental regulations, fear of liability lawsuits and infringement on property rights, and the huge swaths of federal forestland with their own management rules and oversight.

Added to the mix is antagonism between California officials and President Donald Trump, who claimed there was “no reason” for costly and deadly wildfires here, “except that forest management is so poor.” Trump has repeatedly threatened to cut off federal fire assistance to the state, failing to acknowledge that his own administration manages more than half the forests in California.

Most recently, the Forest Service said it was cutting millions in aid for California fire departments, accusing the state of over-billing the feds under a contract agreement.

For their part, the Tahoe National Forest’s managers say they understand the ecological value of allowing fires such as the Sugar to burn when conditions are safe. But while the agency has loosened the rules on letting fires burn on some national forests, managers of the Tahoe are still required to extinguish any fire that ignites in the woods as quickly as possible.

That may soon change. Tahoe forest officials are beginning the process of updating their quarter-century-old management policy to give fire managers, such as Shelly Allen, more discretion to allow fires to burn if there’s little risk to people, infrastructure or private property.

Last week, standing in boots on charred pine and fir needles the Sugar Fire scorched, Allen said that if the updated policy had been in place the Sugar Fire would likely have been allowed to burn a larger area. Although the fire burned near a reservoir that had to be protected, the fire could have burned longer in the opposite direction without doing any harm.

“So it (would do) this natural thinning process that we’re trying to do with our prescribed fires,” Allen said. “These fires come in and they really clean up our ground fuels, so when a fire comes in here next time, you’re going to have less of an impact.”

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Shelly Allen, a fire management officer for the U.S. Forest Service, tours a 65-acre area on Friday, May 24, 2019, that was burned in May after a lightning strike started the Sugar Fire in the Tahoe National Forest. Paul Kitagaki Jr. pkitagaki@sacbee.com

Barriers abound

Data collected by McClatchy and Climate Central, a nonprofit research and news organization based in New Jersey, show that California is barely making a dent in using fire to reduce the staggering amounts of fuels choking the state’s forests.

By some estimates, many of the state’s forests have up to 100 times the amount of small trees and underbrush than what grew prior to white settlement. Meanwhile, researchers estimate that prior to 1800, some 4.5 million acres of the state’s forests burned in a typical year — more than the 1.9 million acres that burned in 2018, the most in modern history.

Yet in a state with more than 30 million acres of forest, only about 87,000 acres of California land were treated with prescribed burns last year to reduce undergrowth prior to the state’s deadly fire season, according to data from Cal Fire, the U.S. Forest Service and the U.S. Bureau of Land Management.

Prescribed fire treats far more land in other parts of the country. In Florida, more than 2 million acres was subjected to prescribed burns in 2017, the last year for which data was available, according to Climate Central. Over the past 20 years, the Southeast has been responsible for 70 percent of the acres in the United States with prescribed burns, according to just-published research in the academic journal Fire.

“The Southeast has figured out a way to get a lot of fire on the ground,” said Crystal Kolden, a specialist at the University of Idaho who authored the study published in Fire. “The key thing the West can learn is that this has to be a process that has to have a lot of community engagement and buy-in. It has to be a collaborative effort with the citizens of the regions who understand that doing a prescribed fire can help prevent Paradise-like devastation and destruction.”

But federal officials in California, who manage more than half of the state’s forested lands, say California has a number of challenges that aren’t present in the Southeast.

The federal and state agencies responsible for prescribed burns find themselves hemmed in by California’s tinder-dry Mediterranean summer and fall months, strict air quality rules, rugged terrain, and a checkerboard pattern of landownership that often puts private property uncomfortably close to public lands.

“Given the parameters in California, the complexity of having 39 million people in the state, (we’re doing) a lot of burning, a lot of prescribed burning,” said Stanton Florea, a spokesman for the Forest Service.

There’s also a long-standing, deep-seated fear of fire in the heavily wooded West that can make agencies think twice before starting a deliberate fire or letting a natural fire run its course. It’s a philosophy that’s been around for about a century, when the federal government adopted a strict practice of suppressing fires as quickly as possible, and has only begun to loosen in the past couple of decades.

“It’s just the culture around fire in the West. We really have a fire-suppression culture,” said Lenya Quinn-Davidson, a UC Cooperative Extension forestry expert and director of the Northern California Prescribed Fire Council. “There is widespread recognition that we are not doing enough in the West.”

State and federal officials in California, however, say they’re making strides in reducing what they call the “fire deficit” by conducting more prescribed burns than in years past. The Forest Service’s Florea said the agency deliberately burned almost 63,000 acres of California land in the 2017-18 fiscal year — the most ever, and a 40 percent increase from the year before. Cal Fire burned more than 19,000 acres in the 2017-18 fiscal year, a 50 percent increase from the year before.

“It’s ramped up; it’s five times the pace we were doing before,” said Len Nielson, a Cal Fire fuels crew supervisor.

State leaders are pushing for more. In SB 901, signed last year by former Gov. Jerry Brown, the Legislature earmarked $175 million over five years for additional prescribed burns on state and privately owned lands. Nielson said Gov. Gavin Newsom’s proposed budget would fund four new Cal Fire “fuels crews,” which would thin forested lands with a combination of chainsaws and prescribed fires. Cal Fire currently has six of those crews, he said.

But cutting through the red tape to carry out a prescribed fire can be tedious and time-consuming.

In some national forests, the undergrowth has grown so thick, fire managers need to hire contractors to go in first and cut and haul away the dense brush and small trees before they light the match. If they don’t, they say, a burn could climb from the tall underbrush to the tops of the big, hardy trees the foresters want to survive.

That sort of pre-thinning requires its own regulatory approval, a process that can take years. Foresters then need to create a “burn plan,” which can take up to two years before it’s approved, officials say.

“Sometimes from start of the project to final implementation, it can take 15 years,” said Brian Crawford, a fuels technician with the Tahoe National Forest. “In some people’s career, they barely see the start to the finish. We should be putting fire in these ecosystems at a greater rate than that.”

Prescribed burns remain controversial among some environmentalists, who aren’t afraid to file a legal challenge to kill a burn in court.

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Brian Crawford of the U.S. Forest Service shows map of a 427-acre prescribed burn in the Foresthill area to help fire suppression on Friday, May 24, 2019 in the Tahoe National Forest. Paul Kitagaki Jr. pkitagaki@sacbee.com

The Chaparral Institute, an environmental group in Escondido, said deliberately setting fires to chaparral can leave the lowland forests in worse shape than before, as the grasses are typically replaced by non-native weeds that are more combustible.

As fuels for wildfires have built up in forests, the effects of climate change have also increased the risk of wildfires. Rising temperatures are causing snowpack to melt earlier and drying out landscapes at a faster rate. In the past two decades, climate change caused twice as much Western forestland to burn in wildfires, compared with what would otherwise have been expected, University of Idaho and Columbia University researchers have concluded.

“You’ve got a more flammable, ignitable environment,” said the institute’s Richard Halsey.

Protecting air quality

Air quality is one of the biggest barriers to prescribed fire in California, which has the strictest pollution standards in the nation.

The California Air Resources Board or one of the big regional air-pollution agencies, such as the San Joaquin Valley Air Pollution Control District, must agree to let the firefighting agency conduct a burn on a particular plot of land. Then the local air district or fire marshal gives the final approval, sometimes just hours before the burn is scheduled to begin.

“It’s challenging to work through the permitting process,” said Quinn-Davidson, the UC forestry specialist.

She said the air districts have limits on how much air pollution they’ll allow in a given area on a given day. As a result, “prescribed burning is competing with industry, or automobile emissions, for the same air space,” she said.

In some ways, she said, the firefighters and air-quality regulators are working at cross purposes. Air regulators prefer the burns to occur on fairly windy days, so the smoke will blow away from the population. But firefighters want to set fires when winds are calm “because it helps us keep things under control,” she said.

Planning a burn means gauging wind patterns, humidity, vegetation types and other factors. Last-minute changes in the weather can force cancellations of scheduled burns that have taken years of study and the planning.

“You’ve got everything lined up, you’ve got your people lined up and you’re ready to go and then you don’t get the green light,” said Jim Branham, recently-retired chief of the Sierra Nevada Conservancy, a state agency that promotes forestry management projects.

State officials say the relationship between air regulators and firefighters is improving. “We work collaboratively now, way more than we did five or 10 years ago,” said Nielson. In an action plan issued in February, Cal Fire pledged to work with state and federal environmental agencies “to increase the scale of prescribed burns while protecting air quality.”

John DaMassa, chief of modeling and meteorology at the Air Resources Board, said his agency is committed to allowing more prescribed burns.

“We’re a public health agency; we recognize that prescribed fire produces smoke,” he said. “But we believe it’s much more palatable compared to the extreme fire events we’ve seen recently.”

Escapes and private land

Further complicating matters is how land is divvied up in and around much of California’s forested regions.

Joe Flannery, a spokesman for the Tahoe National Forest, said much of the forest is carved into a checkerboard of public land interspersed with private property, including homesteads and the holdings of big lumber companies such as Sierra Pacific Industries. Unless private owners agree to burn their lands as well, that makes it difficult to conduct prescribed fires across a vast landscape. And a prescribed fire burning on public property could easily jump to land in private hands, creating legal and financial headaches.

The risk of something going haywire is far from theoretical.

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Brian Crawford of the U.S. Forest Service walks on fire barrier between the prescribed burn on Tahoe National Forest land and private property in Foresthill area on Friday, May 24, 2019. Paul Kitagaki Jr. pkitagaki@sacbee.com

In July 1999, a fire set outside of Redding by the U.S. Bureau of Land Management, intended to eliminate 100 acres of noxious weeds called the star thistle, quickly exploded into a 2,000-acre fire that destroyed 23 homes over five days. The agency’s post-mortem report on the Lowden Ranch Fire concluded that “an unqualified person prepared the burn plan” and failed to recognize the “extreme fire danger conditions” that existed when the fire was lit.

One of the nation’s worst “controlled” burns that wasn’t came a year later, when a prescribed fire in the Bandelier National Monument in New Mexico escaped containment. The fire burned 75 square miles, destroyed more than 200 homes and damaged the legendary Los Alamos nuclear weapons laboratory.

Blasting the planning behind the fire as badly flawed, then-Interior Secretary Bruce Babbitt and Agriculture Secretary Dan Glickman ordered a 30-day suspension of all prescribed fires in the western half of the United States so a stricter approval process could be implemented.

Prescribed fire planning and implementation has improved since then, advocates say, but they acknowledge there’s no way to completely reduce the risks. (It’s why foresters don’t use the term “controlled burn” anymore). Some fire managers worry so much about being sued from an escaped burn they buy personal liability insurance.

Last month, while standing at the site of a 2018 prescribed fire she approved outside Missoula, Mont., Jennifer Hensiek, a district ranger in the Lolo National Forest, said she bought an insurance plan when she started approving prescribed fire plans about seven years earlier.

She said she needed the extra protection. After all, she signs her name to the bottom of a lengthy document that spells out every risk and contingency, prior to anyone lighting a flame torch — and that makes her a target for a savvy civil attorney if the fire jumped its lines and burned someone’s home.

“How people would interpret negligence or not, that’s the piece that concerns me,” she said.

‘A big shift’

Natural wildfire was long a part of California’s history. The millions of acres that once burned every year before white settlement — either set by lightning strikes or intentionally ignited by Native Americans as a land-management tool — rid the forests of excess brush and small trees while enhancing the soils, spurring healthier eco-systems and improving the habitat for the game on which the native peoples relied.

But a series of massive wildfires in the West in the late 1800s and early 1900s ushered in an era of fire suppression to protect lucrative stands of timber, led by the Forest Service and its first chief, Gifford Pinchot.

“A century of fire suppression remains firmly entrenched within federal and state firefighting agencies and has left forest floors deep in flammable groundcover,” the state’s Little Hoover Commission said in a 2018 report.

This approach didn’t begin to change until the 1960s, though states in the Southeast had been utilizing the practice against the Forest Service’s orders for decades. Inspired in part by Harold Biswell, a forestry expert at UC Berkeley and Davis, fire agencies became more willing to let natural fires burn and conduct prescribed fires.”

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A vehicle drives by down Foresthill Road on Friday, May 24, 2019, passing a sign that warns the U.S. Forest Service has performed a prescribed burn in the area to help fire suppression in the Tahoe National Forest. Paul Kitagaki Jr. pkitagaki@sacbee.com

Change comes slowly, though. Ingalsbee, of the firefighters’ group in Oregon, said the Forest Service maintains a no-tolerance policy in several of its national forests when a fire breaks out naturally.

He said the strategy is known as the “10 a.m. policy,” meaning the goal is to extinguish a new fire by the next morning. “It’s not legacy,” he said. “It’s the current reality.”

The Forest Service disputes that. Bob Baird, regional director of fire and aviation management, said his agency has become far more flexible about allowing naturally occurring fires to burn when there’s “a low risk to the public or watersheds or smoke impacts.” He said the agency wants to “minimize destructive wildfire and create healthy fire.”

In 2015 the Forest Service and Cal Fire signed a landmark memorandum of understanding in which each pledged to “support the expanded use of fire to improve ecological conditions and more effectively undertake fire management across the landscape.” The document was also signed by several environmental groups, such as the Sierra Club and the Nature Conservancy; about a year later, the agencies that regulate air pollution in Placer, El Dorado and Butte counties also signed it.

Although the memo is nonbinding, experts such as Quinn-Davidson see the document as a transformation in how agencies such as the Forest Service view prescribed burns.

“Historically they did not want to see more fire on the ground,” she said. “I think we’re seeing a big shift. People are ready to embrace it, and use this tool.”

The managers of the Tahoe National Forest hope to use fire more than they do. Last year, the forest used fire to treat just 5,581 of its 850,000 acres. Tahoe forest officials said they’d eventually like to see managed fire on at least 10 percent of the woods each year. But, for now, they’re chipping away.

The signs telling the public not to call 911 still stood last week on the busy road outside Foresthill where earlier this month crews burned about 427 acres along the roadway — just a couple of miles from where the lightning bolt started the Sugar Fire.

Crawford, the fuels technician for the Tahoe National Forest, said the local residents and the regional air quality officials have embraced fire too, and were quick to throw their support behind the burn.

“They understand the pros of us getting fire on the ground during spring and fall conditions where it’s in our favor far outweigh a fire in the summer,” he said.

Maya Miller is a reporter with Climate Central. McClatchy’s reporting was supported by the Institute for Journalism & Natural Resources.

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