Using Fire to Fight Fire

by SC Guest Contributor Barbara Joy Cooley

There is no doubt that the size and intensity of wildfires out west are magnified by climate change. However, there are measures that can be taken to prevent and reduce the intensity of these kinds of wildfires. Here in Florida, we use one of the major tools for this task: controlled burns.

Cal Fire is the agency charged with preventing wildfires in California. Cal Fire advocates for doing controlled burns, but organized neighborhood opposition has the ability to defeat controlled burn plans.

That’s what happened when Cal Fire and a vintner proposed a controlled burn near the multi-million dollar homes of Sky Ranch near Carmel. Now the Carmel Fire has destroyed 73 buildings in Sky Ranch and nearby.

For thirty years, I’ve lived by conservation land on Sanibel and I do not recall any opportunity to use my voice to stop controlled burns from happening – not that I would ever do such a thing. I understand that controlled burns are far better than unmitigated wildfires, and that nature needs some fire to renew habitats.

The fires that now rage out west are the first in recorded history for some areas. Without controlled burns, too much fuel has accumulated and is available to the wildfires.

The controlled burns I’ve lived near have been tolerable, if occasionally inconvenient or irritating. The deadly and destructive wildfires out west, and the subsequent air pollution, are horrifying.

Another name for “controlled burn” is “hazard reduction burning.” Perhaps that is the term we should use for it, so more folks would more readily understand the mitigative aspects of these burns. Perhaps property owners should not be able to defeat plans for burns that the experts recommend. As a society, we do many things for the good of the many, even if a few object. So it should be with controlled burns.

And yet another name for “controlled burn” is “prescribed burn.” Prescribed by whom? Prescribed by the experts. Do we trust experts from Cal Fire and similar agencies to prevent fire, or do we listen to people who don’t have any expertise in wildfire prevention and mitigation?

Florida learned a lesson back in 1995, when drought-fueled wildfires burned many houses. The Florida Division of Forestry blamed intensity of the fires on the cancellation of controlled burns. Those burns were cancelled because of neighborhood complaints, according to Wikipedia.

In addition to reducing the amount of fuel available to wildfires, prescribed burns can help wildlife by controlling invasive vegetation, improving accessibility and areas for grazing, and controlling some tree diseases. The habitats for some species of wildlife, such as the red cockaded woodpecker, benefit from occasional fire. Other benefits of controlled burns are specific to each forest. So, the experts must decide when and where it is time to burn.

On Sanibel, our experts on controlled burns are members of the SCCF Prescribed Fire Program, which is directed by SCCF’s Wildlife and Habitat Management Department. The first goal for that program is hazardous fuel reduction, followed by habitat restoration and management.

A controlled burn at Sanibel Gardens in 2018. SC file photo

“Fire promotes growth of native plant species through nutrient cycling and increased seed production, while inhibiting invasive species,” according to SCCF’s web page on prescribed fire. “Remember, Sanibel Island is fire adapted. Fires are a natural component of the ecosystems of the island. Without controlled fire, most habitats succeed to tropical hammock or tropical hardwood forests.” To preserve the habitat of many species, it is important to keep remaining open grassy areas free of invasive plants and hardwood trees.

The burned areas heal quickly on Sanibel; in just a few months, the land is fresh and green again – good for wildlife, good for people who like to see wildlife, and good for reducing the hazard of wildfire.

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