Culture 3 min read

Study Identifies the Barriers That Prevent Prescribed Burns

Wildnerdpix / Shutterstock.com

Wildnerdpix / Shutterstock.com

Prescribed burns remain unpopular in California - despite its many ecological benefits - because of the risk associated with liability laws, study says.

A recent Stanford-led study has identified the barriers of using prescribed burns in California.

California has been suppressing fire for over a hundred years.

Now, forests in the region now have a massive accumulation of wood and plant fuel. As a result, burnings are more destructive when they escape suppression, killing more trees and torching more homes. What’s more, the fire sends more carbon into the atmosphere.

So devising a means to balance the effect of fire suppression is a no-brainer. And that’s where fuel treatment – prescribed burning and vegetation thinning – comes in.

Reports suggest that California needs fuel treatment on about 20 million acres, that’s roughly 20 percent of the state’s land area. Although ambition for prescribed burning is on the rise, there are still doubts.

More than half of the acreage remains unburned due to limited resources and outdated regulations. There are also concerns about smoky air.

The Perry L. McCarty Director of the Stanford Woods Institute for the Environment and co-author of the study, Chris Field said:

“California needs to remove obstacles to their use so we can avoid more devastating wildfires.”

In a paper published in Nature Sustainability, Field and colleagues proposed ways to overcome these barriers.

But before we delve any deeper, let’s begin with a question.

What is Prescribed Burns?

Prescribed burns involve intentionally setting fires under controlled conditions to remove ground fuels.

Not only is the method effective and safe, but it also offers the ecological benefit that mimics the effects of a natural fire. These include increasing species diversity, as well as reducing the spread of insects and diseases. What’s more, the blazes rarely escape their set boundaries.

With all these benefits, you must be wondering why prescribed burning is unpopular.

Understanding the Barriers Against Prescribed Burns

For this part of the study, the researchers interviewed federal and state government employees. They also talked to state legislative staffs and non-profits that are involved in wildfire management.

In addition to analyzing legislative policies, the researchers combed through prescribed burn data to identify the barriers.

It turns out that the primary challenge is an aversion to risk caused by liability laws. The laws place the financial and legal responsibility of any prescribed burn that escapes its boundary on the burner.

According to the researchers, fear of bankruptcy prevents private owners from burning their lands.

For federal agency employees, it’s the absence of reward or praise for doing prescribed burning. Meanwhile, punishments exist if the fire escapes.

Federal and state employees, on the other hand, claimed that negative public opinion is a significant challenge. There’s also the issue of limited funding, lack of qualified burners, as well as complex regulations.

Overcoming the Challenges of Prescribed Burnings

Recently, California has taken significant steps to ease the negative image projected by prescribed burning.

For example, a new education program could improve public opinion of the practice. Also, a recent regulation exempts landowners who take appropriate precautions from financial liability for any prescribed burns that escape.

But there’s room for improvement.

Rather than focussing on just fire suppression, stakeholders recommend consistent funding for fire prevention. They also suggested rebuilding the federal workforce and introducing training programs to bolster current efforts.

The researchers also said that changing specific emission calculations could incentivize treatment. At the moment, prescribed burn smoke counts are considered human-caused, while wildfire counts as natural emissions.

Read More: Wildfires to Produce More Tarballs due to Climate Change

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Sumbo Bello

Sumbo Bello is a creative writer who enjoys creating data-driven content for news sites. In his spare time, he plays basketball and listens to Coldplay.

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