Posted on August 6th, 2013

Outside the Box – Prescribed Burning

It seems every summer that we hear more and more about forest wildfires destroying vast expanses of beautiful tracts of trees. And as cliché as the saying is, you can’t see the forest for the trees, it seems that it is quite apropos for our pondering today. Many triggers can lead to unsafe forest densities, and as the science behind land management strengthens, we as a nation find that past strategies to conserve our lands have been part of the cause for the wildfires that occur across the nation, and predominately in the West. When forest tracts become too thick, it prevents spacing that would allow for a natural fire-break, an area that would prevent the spread of fire. And when these crowded strands of trees start to die, especially as seen with the mountain pine beetle epidemic in the West, it creates more fuel for bigger, hotter fires. Coupled with our love of the outdoors that inspires many to move into areas that are ripe for a wildfire, as well as the desire to “preserve” the natural component of these fires (i.e. trees), we are almost loving our forests to death.

SouthForkCO_WV2_50cmcolor_6_21_2011_ENHANCEEdifices in the tiny town of South Fork were saved from nearby wildfires. The West Fork fire covered 140 square miles, and caused thousands in the area to be evacuated. Fortunately for these residents, they were allowed to return to their homes primarily still intact. In other regions of the country, this was not the case. Image appears courtesy of DigitalGlobe, and was captured by WorldView-2 on June 21, 2011. Photo enhanced by Apollo Mapping.

The objectives that are associated with prescribed burning include lessening the amount of available fuel (i.e. dead trees), controlling diseases and insects, and exposing soil for regeneration. By proper management and thinning of forests, it allows for the creation of buffers to thwart and direct future wildfires. Researchers all over the world have employed remote sensing technologies to aid in the designation of fuel loads and modeling strategic planning of control practices. Wildfires are not unique to the States; they are an issue throughout the world, and particularly in Africa for quite some time.

Wildfires also do more than just wipe vast swaths of forest from our lands. Nearly $2 billion is spent annually in the USA fighting fires, and while human fatalities are often low or non-existent, long-term health issues related to the excessive burning and pollution are of concern; as is the impact that the burn-off has on global warming.

And while prescribed burns can be applied to larger tracts of forested land, the practice is more frequently used in smaller areas by land managers and farmers to help prevent future problems. A few months ago in Colorado, the state senate took issue with the Prescribed Burning Act, and sent it back for revision. Spurred to action by the North Fork Fire near Jefferson County in 2012, a prescribed burn had been enacted by the state forest service, but was left unattended when it was believed to have been extinguished. Ultimately the fire took three lives and dozens of homes, not to mention the wild lands consumed by the irresponsible management.

And today in Colorado the West Fork fire is still burning, having consumed nearly 100,000 acres so far. Some 1,500 wild land firefighters have been brought in to battle the blaze. This is not the only fire burning in the US right now, and it surely won’t be the last this season. And while the logistics of responsible, controlled burns is still in debate, one has to think that major steps (whatever they maybe) have to be taken to curb future problems. Otherwise we will continue to fight the same battles over, and over again.

Justin Harmon
Staff Writer

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