To Stop Extreme Wildfires, California Is Learning From ... Florida?

California Learns From Florida to Stop Extreme Wildfires
Enlarge this image toggle caption Lenya Quinn-Davidson Lenya Quinn-Davidson

Early May saw flames spread through a pine forest and consume a dense underbrush. This was the definition of a "good flame", intentionally lit to clear any vegetation that could fuel future infernos.

It took place in Florida, the country's leader in controlled burns.

Some are turning their attention to the Southeastern U.S. as a place where prescribed fire is common, despite having to contend with more severe wildfires in Western states. These policies were established decades ago and have been embraced by many. The Southeast was responsible for 70% of all controlled burning from 1998 to 2018.

Although they are on a different continent, both regions share a need for fire. For thousands of years forests and woodlands were subject to regular burning. This was done by lightning, and Native American tribes who used it to prevent the growth of flammable material. The landscape is vulnerable to wildfires that can be devastating and intense without fire.

Despite this risk, Western countries have struggled with expanding the use of controlled burning. Due to record-breakingly dry conditions, the U.S. Forest Service suspended their use this month.

As a way to protect themselves against the future, many Western states have begun to adopt Florida's fire policies. These policies include liability protection and training for burn leaders. Change in the culture surrounding fire is the bigger challenge. Residents need to understand that a little smoke from fire can be a good thing.

Lenya Quinn Davison, a fire advisor at the University of California Cooperative Extension, says that there is a generational gap in fire knowledge. "But Florida and Southeast still have it."

In the South, good fire was a routine

In the United States, low-intensity fires used to be common. Tribes would light forests in order to promote plant growth, increase food and weave resources, and attract wildlife. Fires were common in the Southeast's fast-growing forests.

Some settlers from the Southeast used similar fire-fighting methods on land taken from tribal tribes after colonization. The era of fire suppression started in the early 1900s. The threat of burning was seen as a threat for timber harvests. The U.S. Forest Service issued an order to put out all burning fires. Smokey Bear promoted the belief that fire was an enemy on billboards and in advertisements.

In the 1960s, land managers saw that many landscapes were choked by small trees, grasses and brush. Some residents in the Southeast, where most of the land is private, had maintained controlled burning and wanted to see it grow.

Click to enlarge the image and toggle caption Morgan Varner Morgan Varner

Frank Riley, executive director, Chestatee Chattahoochee Resource Conservation and Development Commission in Demorest, Georgia, says, "We're there since the 1800s. My family has been." They used to light a fire, and let it burn until it died. It kept the forest open. It provided food for the deer. Because it had burned all the briars, bushes, and grasses, the cattle had something to eat back then.

Florida passed a law encouraging prescribed burning in 1990. It recognized that Florida would lose significant biodiversity if it didn't. The law was strengthened after 1998 firestorms that destroyed almost 500,000 acres.

Florida established a certification system to help burn managers (also known as "burn bosses"), which required candidates to receive training in weather and landscape conditions that are conducive for safe burning. In the unlikely event that a burn goes out of control, those who have this certification are immune to liability lawsuits unless gross negligence is proven.

There are 11 Southern states with burn manager certification programs. Controlled burning is now part of our social fabric.

Morgan Varner, Tall Timbers' director of fire research, said that the city embraces natural areas. Tall Timbers is a Tallahassee-based research station and land conservancy. They love green spaces and associate it with the fires that take place. There's a certain social license that needs to be restored or reborn in the rest of the country.

Varner states that many private landowners have a burning ceremony every other year, most often in the spring. Burn bosses can obtain a permit over the phone in as little as 15 minutes, provided the weather and wind conditions remain safe. Prescribed burn planning in Western states can take up to a few months.

Crystal Kolden, a University of California Merced fire scientist, says that people don't accept it. They look for it. They demand it because they understand how vital it is to maintain these landscapes.

The West has a long way to travel

Florida has prescribed burned more than 1.6million acres this year. California has burned only 35,000 acres. California is 2.5 times bigger than Florida.

California signed an agreement with U.S. Forest Service in order to reduce the vegetation on 1,000,000 acres of public lands. However, the goal remains unattainable. Experts estimate that there are tens to millions of acres of unmet needs in California. However, the lack of funding, personnel, and political will has restricted the progress on public lands.

Enlarge this image toggle caption Lenya Quinn-Davidson Lenya Quinn-Davidson

California's private sector accounts for half of California, however landowners are often unable to access public assistance for conducting burns on their properties. It can be difficult to obtain permits from air quality regulators and fire fighting agencies.

Quinn-Davidson states, "It is very important that private landowners are involved because they manage and take care of the lands surrounding our towns and communities." They are crucial in the larger vision of California living by fire.

Federal and state firefighters are not liable for prescribing fire, but private-land burn bosses are often unable to obtain insurance to cover themselves.

Quinn-Davidson states, "When I go outside and I burn. I have no liability protection." "I assume full responsibility for these projects. We do these projects for the public good, to reduce wildfire risk, restore habitat, and for cultural purposes.

California legislators are currently considering a bill to protect burners from being held responsible for firefighting costs if a burn escapes.

An earlier version would have copied laws from the Southeast states and protected burners from civil liability unless they were grossly negligence. This provision was removed after opposition from the insurance sector. Although rare, prescribed burns can sometimes escape and burn into areas that are developed, threatening or even burning down homes.

The trend is also being followed by other Western states. New Mexico passed in March a law that limits liability for prescribed burning. It also established a program to train burn bosses. Oregon also passed a July bill, which established its first burn boss certification and directed agencies to investigate liability issues.

Federally, several Democratic senators hope to assist states with additional funding from the National Prescribed Fire Act of 2021. This would provide $300 million for federal agency fires if it is passed.

Although the West still has a lot to go, experts believe that there is a resurgence in burning, which is being led by Native American tribes and communities.

Quinn-Davidson was a part of the first California burn manager certification course. Quartteen groups have been formed, called prescribed burn associations, to assist private landowners in managing burns throughout the state.

Varner states that California is in the "dark ages of prescribed fire" in some ways. They're now in a special time that allows them to go from 49th in the country up to number 1.