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.