How Public Agencies Can Support Beneficial Fire UseMarch 30, 2022
Photo credit: Karuk Tribe
California is facing an unprecedented and growing forest and wildfire crisis. Decades of fire exclusion, coupled with the increasing impacts of climate change, have dramatically increased wildfires’ intensity and size. A recent UN report found that—even in the lowest emissions scenarios—the world is likely to see a significant increase in wildfire events over today’s conditions. But the situation is not hopeless. By altering land management practices, reducing or eliminating further growth in the wildland-urban interface, and “hardening” the homes and infrastructure already built in these areas, the state can reduce the human cost of wildfires and increase the resiliency of forests and other ecosystems.
California and its federal and local partners recently launched new efforts to guide expansion of one element of these tactics: the use of beneficial fire. California’s Strategic Plan for Expanding the Use of Beneficial Fire—released in March by the Wildfire and Forest Resilience Task Force—is the result of a multi-year collaboration to coordinate and advance use of this land management tool.
The Strategic Plan explains that a significant portion of California’s ecosystems, especially in the northern half of the state, are in a fire deficit. Prior to 1850, fires ignited by lightning and Native Americans burned between 4 and 12 million acres annually. Ecosystems throughout California are well adapted to fire. For comparison, fires in 2020 burned just over 4 million acres, the most in modern history.
As a result of fire exclusion, forests and woodlands through the state have significantly more vegetation than pre-1850. Combined with hotter, drier temperatures, invasive species, and poor timber management practices, these conditions have led to the explosive megafires seen in the last decade. Such fires have had severe, adverse impacts on human health, air and water quality, biodiversity, and ecosystem function.
Under appropriate conditions, restoring fire to the land can improve ecosystem form and function and reduce wildfire risk. Native American Tribes have used this practice—referred to as cultural burning—since time immemorial. More recently, agencies, land managers, and fire practitioners have turned to prescribed fire and managing wildland fire for ecosystem benefits. The state and its partners have set a goal of reaching approximately 400,000 acres annually of so-called “beneficial fire” by 2025.
As land managers, funders, and regulatory entities, public agencies can play a key role in this work. Below are four key mechanisms that public agencies can explore to help expand the use of beneficial fire in California.
Meaningfully Engage with Tribes and Cultural Fire Practitioners
Tribes and individual cultural fire practitioners are revitalizing cultural burning practices. For example, the Indigenous Peoples Burning Network (created by the Yurok, Hoopa and Karuk Tribes) is an intertribal support system to implement cultural burns through the sharing of Indigenous Knowledge and the protection of cultural rights. The Cultural Fire Management Council has brought fire back to the ancestral territory of the Yurok people to ensure the continuance of traditional lifeways. The Amah Mutsun Tribal Band has re-established cultural burning on the central coast through the creation of a Native Stewardship Corps, in collaboration with the California Department of Parks and Recreation.
Public agencies can be important partners in this work, if they approach Tribes in meaningful and culturally sensitive ways. For instance, agencies may be able to make lands within the ancestral territories of Tribes available for cultural burning or to solicit Tribal input on agency plans for prescribed fire. Agencies should take care to respect tribal sovereignty, avoid appropriation of Traditional Ecological Knowledge, and, as feasible, return decision-making authority to Tribes within their ancestral territories.
Include Beneficial Fire in Land Use Plans
Agencies that manage land or regulate land use can better incorporate beneficial fire practices into their planning documents. Through the Wildfire and Forest Resilience Task Force, regions are putting together Regional Forest and Community Fire Resilience Plans to geographically prioritize important forest management work. Local agencies in particular can actively participate in the development of these plans to better streamline project implementation and focus work in high priority areas.
Enable Private Fire Practitioners
Throughout the state, there is a growing movement of private fire practitioners committed to restoring beneficial fire in their communities. There are currently 12 operating Prescribed Burn Associations—community-based mutual aid networks that help private landowners put “good fire” on their land—and at least 14 more are in development. The U.S. Forest Service and the Nature Conservancy host Prescribed Fire Training Exchanges (also known as “TREX”) to increase the number of experienced burners. And just last year, the state launched a State Certified Burn Boss Program to increase the number of certified professionals to assist with burns on private lands.
Public agencies are in key positions to help enable these activities. For instance, agencies can partner with private fire practitioners to implement projects on either public or private lands, and can be particularly helpful in providing resources, expertise, and possibly liability coverage. Likewise, public agencies can help support private activities by providing communication assistance, funding, or fire support resources. Resource Conservation Districts and local land management agencies (such as park districts) are particularly well suited to these roles, though other agencies may be able to provide support as well.
Although there is growing consensus about both the need for and safety of beneficial fire use, the public can still be skeptical, especially when smoke is noticeable in communities or when beneficial fire use occurs close to homes, natural resources, or infrastructure.
Recent studies indicate that the public can be persuaded to support beneficial fire programs when armed with scientific knowledge and familiarized with the people or agencies managing the burn. Public agencies and elected officials can be effective conduits between communities and beneficial fire practitioners. Special care should be taken to develop effective communication strategies for smoke-sensitive populations or communities with less knowledge of or exposure to forest and wildland management.
California is at a turning point. The scientific community generally agrees that wildfires will continue to increase, at least over the next few decades. However, if state and local agencies act quickly and collaboratively, California has a fighting chance to build resiliency into its forests and communities.
Sara A. Clark is a partner at Shute, Mihaly & Weinberger LLP. She helps Tribes and land conservation organizations restore beneficial fire to the landscape. She was the lead facilitator for California’s Strategic Plan for Expanding the Use of Beneficial Fire and a co-author of Good Fire for the Karuk Tribe. She can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org.