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One of the worst wildfire seasons in U.S. history took place in 2018, including catastrophic blazes in California that killed nearly 100 people. As this year's fire season ramps up, a new report shows how the use of prescribed fires are being underutilized in the western United States. Crystal Kolden, professor of fire science at the University of Idaho, joins Hari Sreenivasan to discuss.
2018 was one of the worst wildfire seasons in U.S. history. Catastrophic blazes like the Camp Fire in northern California destroyed entire cities and killed nearly 100 people. As this year's wildfire season ramps up. A new report from Climate Central shows how a key prevention strategy has not been used as widely as it could be in fire prone areas in the western U.S. I spoke yesterday via Skype with Crystal Kolden. She's an associate professor of fire scientists at the University of Idaho and the author of a new paper in the journal fire on the use of prescribed fire or controlled burns across the US. Crystal just so everyone has kind of an understanding what's a prescribed burn what's how do we have a controlled burn.
A prescribed burn is one that is set intentionally by fire management and that's very different from a wildfire which is unintentional. It's also very different from what some people see on the news during wildfires which are these burn out operations or back burns. Those are set to try and stop a fire but a prescribed fire is done well ahead of time trying to actually remove fuels from an area that could burn to either prevent or minimize fire.
And this is something that's been happening for hundreds of years?
Even longer than that. Indigenous people globally and particularly in North America I actually did a lot of prescribed burning or controlled burning long before Europeans settled this country. So there's a long history of using fire intentionally in these landscapes and in parts of the US we've been using it in a management context for several decades.
And part of your research you've got maps here that show that there's a big gap in how these prescribed burns are used in different parts of the country in the lower right in the southeast corner of the United States. It seems that they're being used a lot more than in the West where we really think of big fires being.
That's true. The southeastern U.S. states have been using prescribed fire for over eight decades and they really got going using it because they recognized that it was good for improving their timber production so good for industry. It was also really good for game habitat prescribed fire was one of the ways to improve game habitat and they've seen the benefit benefits of that over the decades since. So they use a lot of prescribed fire in the southeast. Millions of acres every single year and in the West we're not even close to that.
Why is that? I mean what what are what's the West scared of or why is the policy different in the West than it is in the southeast.
There's a lot of reasons. It's really hard to pinpoint one in some places. It has to do with the air quality concerns. People are not big fans of smoke of course and prescribed fire always produces smoke although there's a fair amount of science that shows that that smoke is much less dangerous than wildfire smoke and is much easier to control in terms of length of time that it's impacting people than wildfire smoke. There are other concerns just in terms of fear of fires escaping. So there have been instances where prescribed fires have escaped control and become wildfires. And people in the West just aren't used to seeing a lot of fire on the landscape except for wildfire. It's really different in the Southeast. People that have lived in the southeast for decades they're sort of used to it. They're very much acclimated to seeing prescribed fire being used widely in their backyards in their communities. And the outcome of that is that they see a lot less wildfire.
Tell me about the correlation that if you have less fuel I'm assuming you have less wildfires right so in the southeast if you can see the correlation between a lot more prescribed burns a lot less fuel and lot less out of control wildfires is the inverse the case in the West?
Well that's what we hypothesize. And you know it's really hard to point to a single wildfire or a single prescribed fire and say oh that that prescribed fire prevented a wildfire or prevented it from spreading and becoming disaster. So Vice versa you know a wildfire was as bad as it was because there was no prescribed fire. It's really hard to say that on an individual fire level. But what we do look at is across the west and across the southeast and the rest of the country where do we have a lot of prescribed fire reducing fuel and not even necessarily preventing fire because fires are always going to start out. What's important to recognize is that prescribed fire really just reduces the fuel available to make that fire hotter burn more out of control and produce the types of negative impacts that we don't want to see things like houses burning down or worst case scenario fatality. So prescribed fire really reduces the chances of a catastrophe.
So is the kind of national conversation on a policy level about this? If something change what has to happen to create that change?
There's a lot of things that have to change. Fire agencies at the national level also at the state and local levels. They all recognize this and where they are challenged is that they're stuck very much in a cycle of having to spend all of their budget on suppressing wildfires in the West. And the other challenges that they really need a lot of support from the public and that's a key cultural difference between the southeast and the West. There's enormous cultural support for prescribed fire in the Southeast and in the west there's not that support. We have prescribed fire councils all over the country and there's just not as much involvement in those prescribed fire councils in the West by the general public. And if the public wants to be supportive of prescribed fire and having it reduce the risk of wildfire that's one avenue that they can get involved in to help try and change some of those policies and to help try and improve the amount of prescribed fire on the landscape.
Alright, Crystal Kolden, from the University of Idaho. Thanks so much.
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