Wednesday, September 16, 2020

The wildfire conversation we need to have right now.

In the longer run the question of global warming is the biggest environmental threat we face, but in the immediate term here in the West, our highest priority has got to be returning our forests to their natural equilibrium, which means finding a way to start burning off tens of millions of acres starting as soon as possible.

The conversation now needs to focus on finding the best, fastest and safest way to burn this fuel off, and on identifying and addressing the obstacles preventing us from taking action.

From Nature (Published: 20 January 2020):
Barriers and enablers for prescribed burns for wildfire management in California
Based on interviews, personal and public concerns regarding prescribed burns create risk-related barriers that prevent potential burners from beginning the burn planning process (Supplementary Table 3). First, all interview groups stated that liability laws place financial and legal responsibility for any escapes on the burners, resulting in a risk-averse culture that needs legal changes. Private landowners concerned about potential bankruptcy thus avoid burn-ing on their property. Within the federal government, interviewees described an absence of praise or rewards for managers who used prescribed burns, but punishment for any escapes. Second, fed-eral and state government employees claimed that negative public opinion remains a challenge, although opposition diminishes with education. Non-profit representatives believed that public tolerance for smoke or escapes is limited, and avoiding burns entirely can pre-vent any complaints (Table 2).

Additionally, according to interviewees, resource- and regula-tions-related barriers create an implementation gap between acres planned and subsequently burned across landowner types (Fig. 3 and Table 2). First, the USFS, with its large, uninterrupted swathes of land, dedicated fire crew and agency approval of prescribed and managed burns, could burn hundreds of thousands of acres annually (Supplementary Table 4). However, wildfire suppression has historically diverted federal funding from wildfire prevention. Federal government employees and academics recommended stra-tegic resource allocation between wildfire suppression and preven-tion. Non-profit representatives listed inconsistent funding for fuel treatments and an emphasis on private mechanical thinning as limitations on prescribed burns in national forests. In many areas, overgrowth demands mechanical thinning pretreatments before prescribed burns, although financial constraints may limit follow-up burns. Second, interviewees across non-state government groups recognized a need for federal workforce rebuilding and training pro-grammes. Active burn programmes have ended when experienced burn managers retired. An ageing federal workforce without newly trained burners has limited the use of prescribed burns. On the reg-ulations side, the California Air Resources Board may establish nar-row burn windows based on local weather conditions, restricting when or how many acres landowners can burn. Changing weather conditions may result in less burning than planned because burns cannot continue safely over consecutive days. 
Across interview groups, interviewees reported that land managers and air boards blamed each other: land managers claim that air boards do not offer enough burn days, but air boards claim that they offer more burn days than are used (Table 2). Similarly, federal government employ-ees, legislative staff and non-profit representatives noted that local air boards may prohibit burning that would exceed air quality stan-dards based on local weather conditions. These barriers remain. 
State and private burners face two distinct resource- and regu-lations-related barriers identified by interviewees that contributed to a gap of 4,138 acres (6.86%) that were planned but not burned in PFIRS between 2013 and 2018 (Table 2 and Supplementary Table 4). First, all interview groups agreed that limited burn crew availability and prescribed-burn training or certification pro-grammes restrict when and where burns can occur. Before 2018, California had no official prescribed-burn training or certification programme. Private landowners therefore had few opportunities to practice burning safely, exacerbating liability apprehensions. Many CAL FIRE crews are seasonal rather than full-time employees hired during the worst wildfire months rather than the best prescribed-burn months. CAL FIRE can divert crews from conducting planned burns to extinguishing wildfires in other regions of the state, limit-ing the use of VMP contracts. 
Second, interviewees from all groups except academics identified state and cross-jurisdictional regula-tions as slowing or preventing fuel treatments. Burners receiv-ing federal or state funds must undergo environmental reviews mandated by the National Environmental Protection Act or the California Environmental Quality Act. Burn managers who miss the window of approval by these potentially expensive and time-consuming reviews must redo the process, preventing an otherwise planned burn from occurring. For example, VMP contracts may expire before plans receive CEQA approval. Interviewees com-plained that these laws, intended for determining environmental impacts of major projects or actions, are not applicable for pre-scribed burns, which should occur regularly. These barriers broadly remain, although a new state-level training and certification programme may increase private burning.

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