By Payton Hampton and Matt Anderson
Published on August 22, 2018

Originally published by The Hill.

Each year, Westerners watch as extreme wildfires reduce their homes and communities to ashes. It doesn’t have to be this way. Prevention — through the aggressive use of prescribed burns — could help change this narrative and bring firefighting efforts into the 21st century.

Wildfires are a fact of life in the West. Our public lands are meant to burn, heal and rejuvenate — a system of self-management that has sustained the West’s ecosystems for eons. Unfortunately, almost a century of zealous fire suppression by federal agencies has built up monumental and unnatural fuel loads. These fuel loads are feeding extreme wildfire behavior and contributing to the growing problem of larger, hotter and more intense fires.

While the intention to protect our public lands is pure, federal land management agencies’ war on fire has created a “fire deficit.” According to fire ecologists, 20 million to 30 million acres or more burned each year in the United States before organized fire suppression efforts began in the early 20th century, compared with just 10 million acres that burned in 2017.

But it’s not too late to buck the trend and protect the West’s rural communities and our public lands.

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Active management tools, such as prescribed burns, can reduce fuel loads and undo the damage to our rangelands and national forests. Prescribed fire significantly improves wildlife habitat; encourages new, healthier growth; and prevents extreme wildfire behavior by thinning out overgrown vegetation. When an area has been treated with prescribed fire, it is far less challenging for firefighters to safely manage that area when a wildfire burns there later — making it significantly easier to protect life and property.

Despite all these benefits, only a few million acres are treated with prescribed fire each year. In a recent study conducted by researchers at Colorado State University, prescribed fire managers cited personnel shortages as a primary reason why we don’t see more planned burns. This is especially problematic because areas designated for controlled burns often have narrow windows when fuel moisture, weather, public safety, and environmental considerations are just right for the burn to take place. When a burn window passes without putting fire on the ground because there are not enough firefighters available, it is a missed opportunity.

We can do much more to ensure that firefighting personnel are readily available for these burn windows with two simple steps. First, federal land management agencies can hire seasonal wildland firefighters earlier and lay them off later so that they are available during the critical spring and fall burn windows, when most prescribed burning takes place. Experienced personnel already know the ins and outs of controlled burns and could be an invaluable asset in restoring the health of our public lands.

Second, wildland firefighters should be given hazard pay for managing prescribed fires. As it currently sits, firefighting personnel are only given hazard pay for wildfire fighting despite the risks and difficult work associated with prescribed burns. This change would incentivize more firefighters to participate in proactive management of our public lands.

While these changes will require more funding, either through diverting funds or increasing firefighting budgets, a widespread and aggressive prescribed-fire program has the potential to save money over time. With this program in place, fire costs are likely to decrease as prescribed burning removes excessive fuel loads and decreases the potential for extreme fire behavior.

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