Prescribed burns can keep wildfires in check. So why are politicians standing in the way?
Wildfires are raging harder than ever in the West, but the practice of using prescribed burns for prevention is becoming more restricted.
Madeline Ostrander is freelance science journalist based in Seattle. Her forthcoming book, At Home on an Unruly Planet (Henry Holt and Co., 2022), is about how the climate crisis is affecting Americans at home.
This story originally featured on Undark.
A forest fire may happen to a tree, but the reverse can also be true: A tree happens to a fire. A scientist would say that the Ponderosa pine, for instance, has adapted to fire: In other words, it has evolved to be especially cunning and seductive with the flames that help it survive.
This tree isn’t terribly picky about where it lives, populating mountains and valleys all over western North America, and often dominating the canopy of drier forests at middle elevations. As it grows, it tosses its bright-green needles, each about half a foot long, across the ground in layers, like straw, laying out the perfect bed for fire to run at its feet—fast and warm and light.
When flames do arrive, the Ponderosa shakes them off. It scatters pieces of its thick, cinnamon-colored bark, casting fire across the ground as if it were juggling lit torches. In this way, the Ponderosa pine simultaneously sheds its old skin while creating more space for itself and its future brood. After the fire, the exposed soil is open for new germination of seedlings.
At least, this is the situation the tree would choose if it were able. The Ponderosa has evolved for and adapted to fire. But it cannot handle too-hot fire any more than a human body can bathe in boiling water. And in the last several years, a lot of wildfire conditions have been too much for these pines.
So when Cody Desautel, the natural resources director for the Confederated Tribes of the Colville Reservation in north-central Washington, left his office on the first Friday in October 2020 to survey the previous month’s run of colossal wildfires, he hoped at least some trees had survived. Desautel and his community have been especially skilled fire-tree matchmakers, deliberately lighting the kind of a fire a pine forest craves through a practice called prescribed burning, also known as “good fire.” And good fire actually helps protect forests, by giving trees like Ponderosas a sort of healthy pruning that allows them to survive a future blaze better, while reducing the amount of fuel and brush available to power a wildfire.
Colville lies in mountainous Ponderosa pine and sagebrush country. The reservation land is, at 1.4 million acres, nearly twice the size of Rhode Island and home to about 4,000 tribal members. Those residents belong to 12 Indigenous tribes whose traditional territories spread across the northwestern US. and western Canada. Desautel, whose family comes from the Lakes Tribe, also known as the Sinixt, started his career as a firefighter, and he’s spent the last 20-plus years trying to manage a sort of tree-fire-human balance in these mountains. Over that time, Colville has restored about 200,000 acres of forest to healthier conditions, and one of the foresters’ most important strategies is deliberate fire-setting. The practice dates back centuries among Indigenous communities, such as the ones that make up Colville, and is also carried out on a somewhat limited scale in the West by state and federal land management agencies—and occasionally by private landowners.
But most fire management in the US is devoted to putting fires out, not setting them intentionally. In their early histories, US federal agencies were resistant to and even disdainful of prescribed burning. Now, although the value of prescribed fire is accepted at least among many scientists and forestry experts, it’s been difficult to get funding for the practice, to overcome negative public perceptions of smoke and flames, and to leap legal hurdles that get in the way.
As climate change stokes hotter, more fire-prone conditions across the West—and in the aftermath of two catastrophic fire seasons, first in 2020, and then again this year—prescribed burning has received heightened attention as a possible way to lessen the threat. Some policymakers, including Sens. Ron Wyden of Oregon, Maria Cantwell of Washington, Dianne Feinstein of California, and Rep. Mike Simpson of Idaho, are even trying to advance legislation that would allow for more prescribed fire. Yet in practice, officials, landowners, and members of the public can get squeamish about implementing “good fire.” In the spring of 2020, for instance, the U.S. Forest Service temporarily halted prescribed burning in Oregon, Washington, and California because of concerns about Covid-19 and the respiratory impacts of smoke.
Then came another season of extreme fire. The record-breaking heat and hurricane-force winds of summer 2020 stirred up some of the worst firestorms the West had experienced in more than a century, destroying thousands of homes and burning millions of acres. By early September that year, large areas of the Colville Reservation had gone up in flames, and 81 houses burned down on tribal land—scenes in a monumental catastrophe that reached into Oregon and California as well.
The reservation became part of a national news story about the tragedy of fire. But that story glossed over some of the fine details—the things a pine tree might pay attention to. And it’s here, at the scale of a stand of trees, that the evidence for prescribed burning may be clearest.
About a month after the September 2020 wildfires, Desautel decided to visit some stands of trees about 50 miles east of his office near Inchelium, the tiny unincorporated community on the Columbia River where he grew up. Here, during the same run of fire, the eponymous Inchelium Complex Fire had flamed across 19,000 acres and damaged more than a dozen buildings. He had witnessed it first-hand. He took a crew out during the throes of it and directed them to carve fire breaks around houses with a bulldozer. “It was about as busy a 28-hour shift as I’ve been on,” he said afterward. “But the good news was we saved a lot of houses.”
He suspected there was still more good news to be found within the Inchelium’s fire scars. Inside those scars lay a prescribed burn Desautel had done nearly 20 years previously, as part of a crew that set fire to about 1,000 acres of mostly Ponderosa pine forest.
He turned his pickup truck from the pavement onto the dirt and gravel road that led into the forest and headed into the burned landscape.
It’s hard for most people to picture a good fire, because most have never seen one. Before Europeans settled the West, the Indigenous people of North America wielded fire as part of a calculated strategy to manage grasslands and forests, enhance habitat for wildlife, and clear land for foods like camas, a bulb consumed as a staple across large areas of the Northwest. But in the 20th century, the U.S. Forest Service undertook a massive national campaign to fight wildfires with federal funding and, in some cases, military support. By 1935, the agency’s official stated goal was to extinguish every wildfire by 10 a.m. the day after it began. The “Ten A.M. Policy” was often impossible, but it set the tone for America’s approach to wildfire and later for the advent in the 1940s of Smokey Bear, the cartoon character in a ranger hat whose main message was to put out campfires.
As cute as Smokey was, some ecologists now feel that he taught the public too well to fear all fire and its consequences. It wasn’t until the latter half of the 20th century that many forestry experts, including those within the Forest Service, began questioning the errors of decades past—and accepted that a forest could not be managed without fire. But prescribed fire has never had the level of attention, funding, and public acceptance that firefighting enjoys; and burning has never caught up with decades of policies to extinguish wildfires.
At the same time, public understanding of fire has never fully caught up with the science and tradition of prescribed burning. Still, there’s a broad and growing consensus in the scientific literature that prescribed fire could make some wildfires less destructive and more manageable, says Susan Prichard, a fire ecologist at the University of Washington. Prichard—who also studies Ponderosa pine forests, and who has described, in scientific terms, how trees and plants can happen to wildfire—says that communities in fire-prone ecosystems need to “embrace fire and not try to put a wall up and avoid all fires in the future.” Prescribed fire is one way to do this. Moreover, if enough low-intensity fires were allowed to burn not just in tiny, isolated patches but across a significant area, the strategy could be especially useful.
Over the past 14 years, Prichard has collaborated with colleagues at the University of Washington and scientists with the Forest Service to run a series of studies based on the 2006 Tripod Complex Fire—which roasted 175,000 acres in an area covered with high-elevation forests of lodgepole pine and subalpine fir, and stands of Ponderosas, all of which included areas of old growth. (The Tripod Fire remains one of the largest Washington state has ever seen.) Relying on both field research and satellite imagery, the researchers found that forest areas that had seen prescribed burns in the decade before the Tripod struck had much higher rates of tree survival than areas that had been left alone.
But in the West, it can be difficult to find large-scale landscapes that have experienced good fire, or even moderate fire, at the same frequency they would have historically, before so many wildfires were fought and suppressed. So in another ongoing study, Prichard has been creating simulations to model what would have happened if the Tripod had ignited across a landscape that had witnessed many more small fires in the years before.
Prichard has watched an encouraging pattern emerge. Instead of flaming hot across the entire place, the hypothetical Tripod—traveling through a landscape that had not known many past fires—might have burned in a sort of patchwork pattern, high-intensity in some places and lower in others. The real-life Tripod Complex Fire destroyed large swaths of lynx habitat in north-central Washington. But the simulated fire left some of that habitat intact. While this model is based on lightning-caused fires, it’s not hard to extrapolate to prescribed fire, which would have a similar impact if applied across a large area.
Managing fire this way could also give firefighters a better handle on controlling a blaze near houses and communities. A recent study that examined the Lassen Volcanic National Park in California suggests that prescribed fire may actually help complement firefighting efforts, making it easier to protect a forested landscape.
But in the West prescribed fires have mostly been small and limited, and 21st-century fires are becoming vast, hot, and difficult to stop. Still, there are clear cases where a prescribed fire has helped change the course of a severe wildfire.
In 2015, Washington state experienced one of its worst wildfire seasons on record. In the north-central part of the state, the Okanogan Complex and Tunk Block Fires destroyed houses and terrorized a series of small rural communities both on and near the western side of Colville Reservation. That same season, the North Star Fire burned across the east side of the reservation. All three were megafires, defined by some sources as anything larger than 100,000 acres.
At points along its path, the Okanogan Complex met up with some forest treated with prescribed burning. Not all of the results of these meetings were well-documented, and certainly, good fire didn’t stop the wildfire: Firefighters couldn’t contain the latter until about a month after it began. But in some places, such as within the 14,000-acre Sinlahekin Wildlife Area, land managers were able to watch as good fire altered the impact and forcefulness of the wildfire on the landscape. This became like an unofficial experiment that now helps illuminate how prescribed fire might lessen the damage of a modern-day wildfire.
The Sinlahekin’s prescribed fire program began in the 2000s, when Dale Swedberg, a wildlife biologist who was then overseeing this landscape, began to suspect that fire should have a larger role in its management. The longer he worked at the wildlife area, the more evidence he gathered, eventually collaborating with a fire ecologist and research team to reconstruct the fire history of the Sinlahekin Valley by taking samples from fire-scarred trees, stumps, and logs, mostly from Ponderosa pines and some Douglas firs. From the tree rings, they learned that, prior to the 20th century, the Sinlahekin’s past fires were frequent; any one spot might have burned every five to 15 years. After years of gathering data, Swedberg and his team inferred that humans set many of the fires, since lightning would probably not have come often enough to explain them.
At the same time that this research was unfolding, Swedberg decided he would start conducting prescribed burns inside the wildlife area, and in 2005, he undertook the first. He had to leap over various bureaucratic and regulatory hurdles, especially those imposed by the state. “It was a battle royale,” he recalled later. But that fall the state provided a fire crew to burn an area near a lake. It didn’t go as he hoped. “It was one of the worst prescribed burn implementations I’ve seen,” he says. The crew was inexperienced with controlled burns, and the built-up vegetation generated a huge amount of smoke, drawing complaints from local hunters.
But in 2010, Swedberg hired a burn boss—responsible for planning and overseeing prescribed fires—who knew fire like an art form. Prescribed fire is sometimes called controlled fire, and a skilled burn boss knows how to both tame and manage flames and smoke. First, the burn crew draws a line around where the fire will be set to mark where the flames will be held off—either by wetting the ground or by digging down to mineral soil, often by hand with a tool called a Rhino, which resembles a curved hoe. Then they use a tool called a drip torch—which looks a bit like a gasoline can, but with drops of pre-lit fuel emerging from its tip—to dribble bits of fire in a line across the landscape. The flames are lit in small strips, usually opposite from the direction that the fire would want to travel. In other words, if a crew is burning on a slope, they would terrace the fire down the hill, since fire likes to travel up. They would burn against and not with the wind. An expert burn boss would study the terrain, the fuel, and the weather, and be able to turn the flame lengths and the heat up and down by adjusting the size and orientation of the strips. The flames can even be directed, to some degree, to protect certain parts of the land, avoid an old standing tree snag that woodpeckers like, clear away parasitic mistletoe, and kill off weeds.
If an area hasn’t seen fire in decades, sometimes it’s necessary to run the process in two steps. The first is selective thinning—logging and clearing brush to give the remaining trees healthy space—but here done artfully again, taking out certain species, such as Douglas fir, that aren’t as well adapted to a fire-prone landscape.
In 2013, Swedberg took a new role overseeing four wildlife areas in the same region (the Sinlahekin and three others), and he and his crews were able to run prescribed burns in two of them. Each burn was carefully planned and documented, with a detailed set of goals. (“Retain 90 percent of legacy Ponderosa pine trees,” read one burn plan from 2013. Also: “Maintain an average of 2-foot to 6-foot flame lengths.”)
The land responded. After a fire, snowbush, elderberry trees, currant bushes, cottonwoods, willow, and ocean spray regrew with gusto. The Ponderosa pines seemed especially content, thickening their trunks—the new bark forming reddish stretch marks between the old blackened skin.
Swedberg says he began to think of the land as thirsty for fire—a provocative if paradoxical metaphor. If fire were a kind of sustenance, the land craved it, almost as much as it craved water in a drought. He thought of an uncontrolled fire—especially a wildfire that was so severe that it couldn’t be tamed by firefighters—as a “feral fire,” a fire gone rogue. By failing to set strategic prescribed fires, Swedberg adds, people had allowed feral fires to become epidemic across the West.
In 2015 when one piece of the Okanogan Complex called the Lime Belt Fire burned into Sinlahekin, the wildlife area served as a sort of proving ground.
It burned from south to north through the refuge, making runs, embers spotting and tumbling down the dry grassy slopes into the draws and woods, then lighting flames that ran back up in a sort of zigzag pattern.
But around Blue Lake, a body of water at the center of the wildlife area, Swedberg and his crew had done a series of prescribed burns two years earlier. And it worked: “When the fire came through it was really pushing hard,” Swedberg recalls. But the feral fire couldn’t sustain itself. The old prescribed fires had already protected the wood around the lake.
Nearby, another area had seen prescribed fire twice in the past decade—in 2005 and 2014. Swedberg knew where the edge of that burn was, a line the crew had dug in the ground by hand. And the wildfire seemed also to know that a barrier lay here, he says. It would burn up to the line and stop. In some places it crossed the line, but then, he adds, “kind of meandered, skunked around and really didn’t do anything.” After, on the side that had never seen prescribed fire, “it was just black, completely, utterly black, burned really hot.” And the other side looked as if had barely been touched. Swedberg watched and took videos. “I was getting pretty cocky at that point,” he says. “I started calling it the ‘I-Told-You-So Fire.’”
Eventually, the fire was contained enough that Swedberg, three other people, and two fire engines beat back the fire and stopped it from advancing further north. It had burned about 7,000 acres, nearly half of the Sinlahekin.
In an official report in 2017, the Washington Department of Fish and Wildlife concluded that, while the prescribed fire didn’t halt the larger Okanogan Complex megafire, it had reduced its impact. To Swedberg, who had retired by that point, this was worth a great deal.
“People need to accept the fact that no fire is not an option,” he says now. “Period.”
Among the Colville tribes, Desautel says the intricate details of traditional burning are no longer as well-known as they used to be. “My great grandmother said that when she was young—that would have been like the late 1800s—there was nowhere on the reservation you couldn’t have a horse and carriage go through,” he says. The forests were open and full of Ponderosa pines, with the trees spaced far apart—a set of conditions that were almost certainly created by fire. But “it would have been probably three generations before me that would have just burned the landscape for ecological benefits,” he reflects. “I’m sure they had a much better sense of how and when to burn.”
Still, a familiarity with fire has always been part of this community. When Desautel was old enough to have a reasonable awareness of his surroundings and a sense of caution, his family began letting him—under adult supervision—wield flames himself. He would set fire to dry grass—watching the short flames trail along the ground and the grass-smoke rise—but only in certain places where the trees were tall and well-spaced, the brush not undergrown, and the conditions not too dangerous. Throughout his childhood, setting fire to the ground was a spring pastime for adults. “There would be a lot of smoke in the spring,” he said. “You would drive down the road and see a lot of burned areas, largely fields.” Some place names on the reservation even refer to fire: Near Inchelium lies Smoke Ranch, so nicknamed, he adds, “because they burned it every single year.”
But by the time Desautel began his career in forestry in the late 1990s, there were numerous regulations to follow from the Bureau of Indian Affairs, plans to be approved, and people to notify before beginning any kind of burn. Population in the region was growing, and nearby communities were not necessarily accepting of smoke and flames from their neighbors. While a wildfire is more dangerous than a prescribed fire, burn bosses often have more legal liability for the former than firefighters do for the latter in many states. (In Washington, however, the state legislature passed a law in 2018 restricting courts from holding a prescribed burn manager liable for anything short of “gross negligence or willful or wanton misconduct.”)
Still, the Colville community knew fire could protect forests, and Desautel would make it his business to wield fire.
In the early 2000s, after college, he started working full time for the tribe’s forestry program in various capacities. One of his roles during that time involved scouting out the places on the reservation that might be especially fire-prone and making a plan to burn them deliberately to improve the health of the trees. The tribe ran prescribed burns at multiple elevations along the Kettle Range, on flat and sloping land, near major roads, and deep into the forests and mountains.
Contemporary prescribed burns on reservation land are infused with practices developed or reconstructed by forest scientists over the past several decades, but these fit relatively neatly both with Desautel’s fire-friendly upbringing and his academic training in environmental science from Haskell Indian Nations University in Lawrence, Kansas. By the early 2000s, there were already numerous studies on the efficacy of prescribed fire.
Desautel or his colleagues would write detailed burn plans and he occasionally served as burn boss. The crew would start in the morning, suited up in fire-resistant clothing and hard hats, and build a fire line. There could be a few or a couple of dozen people working with Desautel, some carrying drip torches to light the flames. On difficult terrain, they might even ignite from a helicopter by dropping ping-pong-sized balls of fire starter onto the land.
Another crew would stay at the far edge with an engine, ready to extinguish the fire if it got out of control. The plans contained contingencies in case something went wrong. If the winds were too strong or the conditions too troublesome, the burn was cancelled. There was smoke, but nothing as intolerable as that from a severe wildfire. And they would notify the community so that, if they saw smoke, they wouldn’t worry that a wildfire was headed their way.
A burn crew can of course make a dangerous mistake. (In 2012, an escaped burn in Colorado destroyed more than 20 homes and killed three people.) On the Colville Reservation about 15 years ago, according to Desautel, an inexperienced burn boss accidentally set fire to someone’s vacation home—a costly and embarrassing, though not fatal error. And it was not as difficult a blow to the community as a severe wildfire, not nearly so.
Even before Desautel took over the management of Colville’s natural resources program in 2014, he knew how much the community’s economy and safety depended on prescribed fires. That year, another megafire in the Okanogan region called the Carlton Complex burned down more than 300 houses and galloped across more than 250,000 acres. Then the 2015 wildfires consumed roughly a dozen houses on the reservation, along with valuable timber and places where Colville members hunted and gathered wild plants.
An outsider might think that Colville’s prescribed fire efforts hadn’t worked because it did not stop these flames. But Desautel feels certain that the years of forest restoration efforts protected his community from far worse. For instance, he used satellite data to run an informal comparison of the impacts of the 2015 North Star Fire on reservation forest with comparable stands of trees that burned on Forest Service land in another fire that year called the Stickpin. On many parts of tribal land, most of the trees in the overstory survived. On the Forest Service areas, he found, nearly all of the trees died. A wildfire that does less damage to a forest may also be easier to fight and suppress and, therefore, less likely burn out of control in a community or a residential area.
Even six years later, after the reservation has experienced more runs of destructive wildfire, Desautel thinks prescribed burning has insulated his community somewhat. “I think we saw the potential for a Paradise-type scenario,” he says, referring to the 2018 Camp Fire that destroyed more than 11,000 homes in and around the community of Paradise, California. “A lot of our management approach is, how do you have fire and have something left to work with?” he says. “Because we know it’s all going to burn. It’s just a matter of when.”
When Desautel drove down the gravel road in October 2020, through the fire scars near Inchelium, he could see that many of the Ponderosa pines hadn’t gotten what they needed. There were areas of destruction—unmanaged stands that hadn’t met a good fire in decades. In naiveté, some of these trees had grown with their lower limbs spread out, creating “ladder fuels,” which make it possible for the wildfire to climb up them. The forest had become dense, with trees close together, which also made it an easier target for the wildfire. A Ponderosa pine can tolerate a lot of heat and flame. This wildfire, though, was too much. Most of the pines were black and dead.
But when his truck reached the area that seen prescribed fire two decades previously, he was pleased with what he saw. As hot and dry and ferocious as this fire had been, it had barely touched this place. Instead it had slunk down low, creeping along the ground, eating up an old snag, leaving nearly the entire canopy of pines intact as if nothing had ever happened. The good fire, it appeared, had been like an inoculation against the wildfire.
In an era of climate change, it’s not clear whether prescribed burning efforts will keep up with the mounting risk—whether forests can be protected and communities near wildlands will remain safe and livable. Prichard and her colleagues argue that forest management, including prescribed burning, could be done strategically—to target areas most at risk. But some land managers and policymakers continue to hedge on the subject. Recently, California Governor Gavin Newsom expressed some reluctance about the safety of prescribed fire. In May of this year, the Department of Agriculture released a report that called for more prescribed fire, but a few months later, the Forest Service declared that it would widely abandon the practice in order to prioritize fire suppression in the 2021 season—a move that prompted dozens of scientists, including Prichard, to urge the agency to reconsider. It seems that land agencies aren’t clear whether they are willing to commit to an ambitious-enough level of prescribed burning.
Meanwhile, many models predict that wildfires may keep getting more intense, larger, and more frequent. In 2021, the Colville Reservation had another run of severe wildfires that forced the evacuation of Nespelem, where Desautel’s office is based, and sent him back into the field to support the firefighting crews.
But Desautel, and many other foresters and ecologists, say prescribed fire could still help a great deal. He says it will also become essential to know when to fight fire and when to let it burn—allowing another kind of fire sometimes called managed wildfire, in which nature does the work of burning and people simply try to keep the fire contained. All of this may require a large-scale cultural change—far beyond the borders of the reservation—a new sense of what it means to live with fire.
Whenever Desautel runs into elders and “old timers,” he says he is reminded how much the past still offers up lessons about the future. He says his uncles tell him, “You’re just setting us up for the big one if you guys don’t go out there and burn that stuff.”
“I have a hard time explaining to them why we don’t,” he reflects. Older generations on the reservation don’t always understand the political barriers that Desautel must cope with.
“Back then they could just burn wherever they wanted,” he says, “and there were no rules against it really.”