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In some areas, controlled fires can prevent runaway blazes

As massive fires continue to rage in California, firefighters are setting backfires, dropping flame-retardant from planes and hoping for a break in hot, dry conditions. Another method is to intentionally set fires to tamp down the prospect of larger blazes. Jeff Mapes, senior political reporter for Oregon Public Broadcasting, joins Hari Sreenivasan to discuss.

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  • HARI SREENIVASAN:

    Firefighters are setting backfires dropping fire retardant from planes and hoping for a break in hot, dry conditions driving the massive blazes. But there’s another way to reduce future fires. It’s not politically popular but you can stop fires with fire. Joining us now from Portland for more on this controversial idea is Oregon Public Broadcasting’s reporter Jeff Mapes. Thanks for joining us. So, tell me a little bit about what the scientists and the experts have been trying to do for years.

  • JEFF MAPES:

    Yeah, this is not new at all. They’re really saying that you have to fight fire with fire, to some degree that this is, you know, sort of the pattern, particularly in the west of from, you know, centuries past that fire is regularly swept through, kind of cleared out the underbrush and really sort of, set an ecology that now has gone away and we have very dense, overstocked forests that are more prone to burn and then when you add in climate change, it creates real problems.

  • HARI SREENIVASAN:

    You know, there does seem to be a lot of support for the idea of lighting something up intentionally, especially when we see these pictures from around the west and states like California where you see evacuations, you see homes destroyed.

  • JEFF MAPES:

    Yeah exactly. I mean, there’s a couple [of] things really that that experts have talked about. One, is making more use of controlled burns, prescribed fires and those typically would not be at this time of the year when you’re having the hottest weather and the most dangerous conditions. This would tend to be more and at least in the west and fall and spring, some parts of the country for example, down in the South Florida etc. Down there they burn a lot of acreage deliberately every year. They have more humidity. It’s perhaps easier to control there. And then the other issue is frankly letting some fires burn if the conditions are right, if they’re isolated enough and sort of let the fire do some of the work of clearing out this dense overgrowth. Just last year there was a fire that came through near Sisters, Oregon where they had done this thinning and prescribed burns and once they reach that area it really helped knock down the fire. And I’ve talked to fire experts who say if that work had not been done, the town of Sisters really would have been at the mercy of the weather — whether that fire would have swept through or not.

  • HARI SREENIVASAN:

    Does what works in Oregon work in California?

  • JEFF MAPES:

    You know, California is a big state with a lot of different ecology. I think that it really depends on what part of California you’re talking about. Certainly, there are areas that are more densely populated and more difficult to do that. But there’s also a lot of areas of California where you could use some of these methods as well.

  • HARI SREENIVASAN:

    All right. Oregon Public Broadcasting’s reporter Jeff Mapes. Thanks so much.

  • JEFF MAPES:

    You’re welcome.

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