Communities are embracing ‘controlled burns’ to protect themselves

The past few years have led to record wildfires across the U.S. Decades of suppressing fires has led to overgrown forests, and a warming climate has increased their intensity and frequency. Christopher Booker reports from California on community-led efforts to preemptively set controlled fires, reducing the risk from large out-of-control fires while also restoring the ecological health of the forest.

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  • Hari Sreenivasan:

    Fire is often part of a forest's ecological balance, but climate change is upsetting that. In the American west, decades of suppressing fires has led to overgrown forests and record years of wildfires.

    One tool to both reduce the risk from large out-of-control fires, while also restoring the forest's ecological health is the practice of setting controlled fires. NewsHour Weekend's Christopher Booker reports from northern California on efforts to get more so-called 'good fire' on the ground. This segment is part of our ongoing series, "Peril and Promise: The Challenge of Climate Change."

  • Crowd:

    Now you've done it, Rick!

  • Christopher Booker:

    With help from some of his neighbors and a volunteer squad of strangers last month, Rick Batha set his yard on fire. Using a drip torch – a canister filled with diesel that drops fire onto the ground – Batha methodically left a line of fire in his wake.

  • Rick Batha:

    There's the end!

  • Christopher Booker:

    After making sure it doesn't get too high or burn too hot, the team of volunteers joined in. Some burning new lines, leading the fire down the hill from where it started and others assigned to watch and rake dry debris away from larger trees. The process took about 4 hours, burning just under 4 acres of underbrush on Batha's Northern California property in the Sierra Nevada mountains. So what the hell did you do to your yard?

  • Rick Batha:

    Yeah, really! Yeah, we wiped out, we did an underburn.

  • Christopher Booker:

    This was the first time Batha had done what's called a prescribed burn on his 24 acre property. He said his decision was guided by a desire to make his land more resilient to wildfires in the future.

  • Rick Batha:

    I didn't really have this as in my vision. I think this came along because of all the fires have been around here and it's feeling deadly serious to the folks with land around here.

  • Christopher Booker:

    The edge of the Dixie fire, which burned nearly a million acres last year, was just north of Batha's property. Over more than three months it blazed across five California counties becoming the single largest wildfire in state history.

    In August, it ripped through the town of Greenville, destroying nearly 75 percent of its structures. Today, there's not much left of downtown, houses have been leveled and commercial buildings have been reduced to rubble.

  • Jeff Greef:

    The fire kind of spread along the bottom of the hill along the highway and then came up around this way.

  • Christopher Booker:

    Jeff Greef's property is less than two miles from the center of Greenville. The assembly of dead trees marching up the hill towards his house tell a tale of a near miss, made possible after years of preparation. His cabin and most of the trees around it were spared, a green oasis amidst the burned land.

  • Jeff Greef:

    I had thinned everything that we see around here on both sides of the road on this side. We had done a fair amount of underburn, not all of it, but on the other side here that had all been under burnt.

  • Christopher Booker:

    A few months before the Dixie fire, Greef did a prescribed burn on about five acres of his property as part of the Plumas Underburn Cooperative, or PUC. It's a local group that sprung up in early 2019 to help make prescribed burning more accessible to property owners. Do you think had you not put in all that effort that your house would have survived?

  • Jeff Greef:

    Definitely not. Even though I built the house with fire-resistant materials, it would have just been so hot. And so the just the momentum and intensity of the heat rolling through here, just as it did over there, where it's all black. It would have been enough to destroy the house.

  • Christopher Booker:

    When you came back there was something waiting for you on your door.

  • Jeff Greef:

    Yes. The section chief for Cal Fire had been here, and he left his card on the back of his car and he wrote, 'all your hard work paid off,' which was very gratifying.

  • Christopher Booker:

    Like the prescribed fire that helped save Greef's property, the burn at Rick Batha's was also done as part of the local prescribed burn association, PUC. Community efforts like this one are just a small part of a larger change in thinking around wildfire protection.

  • Lenya Quinn-Davidson:

    I refer to it as a movement. You know, there's almost like an uprising around prescribed fire that's happening in California right now, and we're shaking things up and communities are tired of waiting around for someone else to solve the problem for them.

  • Christopher Booker:

    Lenya Quinn-Davidson is a fire advisor at the University of California Cooperative Extension in Humboldt County. She's helped spread the concept of community prescribed burn associations like PUC around the state.

    She says the nearly century-old emphasis on suppressing fire has left California and other western US states vulnerable, leaving forests overgrown with massive amounts of 'fuel' that can burn in a wildfire.

  • Lenya Quinn-Davidson:

    For a long time, our primary focus around fire has been to put them out and to, you know, to keep fire out of the landscape. And we thought that that would protect our forests and communities. And so now we've seen that that was a big mistake. And we are in the process of really trying to shift that attitude in that culture and I think a lot of people who work in fire management, in general, recognize that need. But it's not an easy thing. I mean, this is deeply ingrained.

  • Christopher Booker:

    But Quinn-Davidson says there has been progress at the state level. Last fall, Governor Gavin Newsom signed laws designed to reduce the legal liability for burners as long as they aren't being grossly negligent. The legislation also acknowledged that purposely setting fire is not a new practice. For centuries indigenous communities have used fire as a tool.

    Under the new law there is also reduced liability for cultural burns – fires set by indigenous community members to meet specific cultural goals, like increasing biodiversity, ceremonial reasons, or to target a plant with cultural value.

  • Don Hankins:

    It's taken years to get to that point. And it's a no-brainer, really, when you think about it like this is what works. We know that this is what works.

  • Christopher Booker:

    Don Hankins is a pyrogeographer at Chico State University in California, studying the intersection of fire, geography, and ecology. He's also Plains Miwok, one of the indigenous groups that inhabited what is now California.

    In late January, he did a cultural burn on part of his own property outside Chico. While different tribes burn for different reasons, he says he's taking a systemic approach to boost the health of his forest.

  • Don Hankins:

    For prescribed burning, it's not as nuanced, you know? There's a lot more to cultural burning. I like to think about it like layers of an onion, you know, like there's a lot to peel back around it. And so you know, I'm not only setting fire to benefit the things that I want in terms of fuel reduction and berry production and different things like that, but also recognizing that those birds and other wildlife, insects or whatever are going to benefit from that fire, too.

  • Christopher Booker:

    As we walked, Hankins described how the timing and location of where to burn requires a careful reading of the landscape.

  • Don Hankins:

    This little tiny plant that's coming up is this one leaf right now is is an orchid.

  • Christopher Booker:

    Just two weeks after it was burned?

  • Don Hankins:

    Two weeks after it was burned. it prefers from what I see to be in the places where I burn pretty frequently. I also know once it comes up in, Leaf is out that I don't want to burn when that plant is coming up because it's it's at a state now where it would be sensitive to fire.

  • Christopher Booker:

    Hankins cautions that balance is necessary when it comes to putting fire on the land.

  • Don Hankins:

    As we're starting to amp up the amount of prescribed burning that's taking place in the state now, what concerns me is that, yeah, we could go out and set fires and we can get this acreage amount. But is that going to get us the ecological side that we want? Is that going to get us the cultural side that we want?

  • Christopher Booker:

    But even as controlled burning ramps up around the state, the scale of what's needed is immense. That was clear when we visited a densely wooded ridge in coastal Marin County, north of San Francisco.

  • Sasha Berleman:

    This is like, charring, but you can see it's cooling off as soon as it gets to that outer layer.

  • Christopher Booker:

    Sasha Berleman is a woodland scientist and director of a nonprofit program called Fire Forward, which trains community members how to safely and effectively perform prescribed burns.

  • Sasha Berleman:

    Yeah, I think you can get in right here and spray it. I would take a nice clean breath before walking in.

  • Christopher Booker:

    On this day, Berleman was leading a burn of undergrowth in a redwood forest that hasn't burned in over 70 years.

  • Sasha Berleman:

    Fire helps clean up the understory. It's like cleaning up your room or brushing your teeth. If you do it frequently, then it's easy, right? It's not a challenge, but what's happened with suppression is we've seen a massive amount of fuel accumulate underneath these trees.

  • Christopher Booker:

    With so much flammable debris on the ground, it was slow going, with the crew of mostly volunteers carefully working around the redwoods.

  • Sasha Berleman:

    This is the boutiquiest of burns right now, I'm loving it!

  • Christopher Booker:

    All in, the team burned about a third of an acre.

  • Sasha Berleman:

    This is tiny and I like to say every year counts, and we have been hitting a lot of small acres of these really difficult fuel types that need a lot of attention to get restoration, but we need millions of acres.

  • Christopher Booker:

    While the U.S. Forest Service and Cal fire have committed to burning or thinning a million acres annually by 2025, they are not currently burning anywhere close to that target, reaching about a tenth of that goal in 2019. Berleman believes that community-led fire initiatives can fill some of that void.

  • Sasha Berleman:

    If we have people who own relatively small tracts of land that do include some wildland we can we can make a huge cultural shift in short time versus massive hundreds of thousands of acres held by one agency that can't probably keep up with the need for prescribed fire across that whole piece of ground.

  • Christopher Booker:

    California must need an army of people, though, given the size and scale of these fires.

  • Dr. Sasha Berleman:

    Yeah, we've spent billions of dollars creating an army of people to put fires out. I believe that we need to do at least as much on the culture of stewardship and culture of good fireside. But to me, that's that's a cultural change, right? Rather than creating an army, we are we are building into our very being in California. This ethos that to live here means to understand the landscape more deeply and to put good fire on the ground as as part of the responsibility of being in this place.

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