Think Out Loud

What to know about prescribed burns

By Elizabeth Castillo (OPB)
Oct. 26, 2021 4:28 p.m. Updated: Oct. 26, 2021 8:30 p.m.

Broadcast: Tuesday, Oct. 26

With the weather changing, forest officials across Oregon are igniting prescribed burns. How can these controlled fires reduce fuels as fire season lasts longer? What should people keep in mind while dealing with smoke exposure for extended periods of time? We hear more from John Bailey, an Oregon State University professor who specializes in prescribed burns.


This transcript was created by a computer and edited by a volunteer.

Dave Miller: Now that the rains and cooler temperatures have returned, Oregon’s fire season is officially over. It went for 131 days, making it one of the longer seasons since 2000. But the end of this fire season doesn’t mean the end of fires because it’s also the time when prescribed burns can be conducted or rather must be conducted according to indigenous communities and forestry experts. John Bailey is one of those experts. He’s a former wildland firefighter turned OSU forestry professor. Let’s start with some logistics here. How do forest managers figure out the locations that would be good candidates for prescribed burns?

John Bailey: We certainly would look at just the fuel accumulation pattern that we have out there. We have many, many acres in the Oregon landscape that have unusual amounts of fuel that have accumulated on them. We have forest types and structural conditions that basically have never existed. And so the local forest managers know these high risk areas and they will identify them as a priority for treatment — either a mechanical treatment or prescribed burning treatment, the two together or other approaches.

Miller: Mechanical treatment meaning thinning or getting rid of underbrush or some kind of taking a dozer or tools and getting rid of fuel?

Bailey: Yes, and some of it could be commercial. It involved commercial-sized material which can meet the wood needs of society. But a whole lot of the work is non-commercial. It just costs money.

Miller: Well, in terms of the money question, how much is either mechanical thinning or a prescribed burn? How does the cost of those operations compare to the cost of not doing them and then either fighting fires or dealing with the effects of fires?

Bailey: Yes, the cost of those proactive approaches, particularly the ones that can yield a little bit of money because they involve that commercial element to it. So we get some wood out, that wood can be sold on the market, maybe even the biomass itself could be sold, some specialty products can even come out of it, you know, that generate money. And the economic analysis that I’ve looked at that, even if it costs $200 perhaps to do a non-commercial thinning and follow up with some mowing work and a prescribed fire or something like that, an investment of $200 an acre is proving to be of net value relative to both the expenses fighting a wildfire. For these large fires, like this year’s Bootleg fire, it was well over $1 million dollars a day that was being spent on active suppression. So that’s a huge cost in and of itself. And even bigger than that and maybe on another order of magnitude is the damage that’s done to the resources, the timber resource, watersheds, lost wildlife habitat, recreational opportunities. [There are] some things that we can put dollars on and some things that, as the commercials say, are priceless.

Miller: But as we’ve been hearing for the last couple years now as members of our congressional delegation are talking about and forestry professionals, what we’ve heard is that so much money goes to fighting these increasingly intense fires that that sucks up the budget. And there isn’t money left for preventative work, even if that preventative work, in the end, what would save government agencies money? Is anybody figuring out a way around that ridiculous budget system?

Bailey: Yes, they certainly have been and are trying to do that because, you’re right, for a fraction of the cost, we can be proactive. I’ll note that the research budget even gets cut when we start doing what’s called fire money borrowing within the agencies. So that’s the history of how we have approached this issue. There’s kind of this open checkbook when we’re in that disaster mode. And there is a compelling reason that we want to go out and protect life and property when we have a forest fire going.

But you’re right. Early in my career in the eighties, it was 10 to 15% of the Forest Service budget. The last few years, I’m sure this year, it was 60 to 70% of the Forest Service budget. So that’s a major change to basically the business model of the agency and how money is getting spent and what doesn’t get done when you’re spending that much money on suppression.

Miller: But we didn’t just get here because of funding. There are some real cultural issues that have gotten us here including a public apprehension about prescribed burns and then an agency response to that. How often do prescribed burns get out of control?

Bailey: The national statistics and people could refer to the Coalition of Prescribed Fire Councils and look at these numbers nationwide, but nationwide it’s less than 2%. Of that 2% most of those are minor spillovers. And those are things that don’t cause significant resource damage or burn into someone’s barn or something like that. So these are small numbers, they’re rare events. But when the big ones happen, then that’s a mar on a record and always gets attention.

And I tell groups that it’s kind of like the first five years that you have a driver’s license and you can drive every day and be fine. And then you bump a mailbox one afternoon and your parents hold that over you the rest of your life. So it’s just one of those phenomena.


Miller: And to take that metaphor to apply it to the world of forest management is the idea that because the public reacts so strongly to these very rare events, forestry managers have been loath to give them potentially more examples of it. So they’ve been less likely to do necessary prescribed burns because they’re so afraid of the rare possibility of a fire getting out of control.

Bailey: Yes. Just the ramifications of that in terms of bad press. But [there are]also some real liability issues in terms of how your organization, the federal government, the state government or private company, how they carry liability insurance, and how the state is regulating that. There are some major differences from state to state, depending on whether there are gross negligence laws where you have to do something really stupid in order to be held liable for the escape versus just normal liability issues.

Miller: What is the scale of the landscape right now even in Oregon that either could benefit from or, you could argue, seriously needs an applied prescribed burn?

Bailey: When we talk about wanting to increase the pace and scale of these restoration activities and reducing the fuel and addressing the wildfire risk out there, we talk about an estimates of at least a fourfold increase in what we’d like to do. In some areas, [we’re talking about] maybe a tenfold increase in the number of acres and what is going to take to do that.

Miller: [So do you] mean a four or tenfold increase in the annual acreage that’s getting a prescribed burn now?

Bailey: Correct, so an example I was thinking of is the Sisters Ranger District, a fairly active burn program over there with a nice history. No recent escapes or heart problems. They looked to burn a few thousand acres a year each year. But overall they have 400,000 acres in terms of fire history, fire ecology, and the fuel risk that’s out there. We’d like to be doing maintenance burns on about a ten-year cycle. So you can do the math. It would like to be burning about 40,000 acres instead of 2,000 acres per year.

Miller: Is there the people power to do that right now? I mean if the political landscape changed, we can talk about that and if the financial landscape changed, would there be enough people who are trained to do this to ramp up very quickly to that level?

Bailey: No, there isn’t. And that’s the second major issue. So we’ve talked about the first one [which is] liability issues that we’re trying to address. We have an Oregon Prescribed Fire Council that’s working on these issues. So we’re addressing liability. The next one is workforce and certification. There is a science as well as an art to prescribed burning and into all aspects of land management. So it takes a trained workforce that maintains certification that has the structure and the materials, the vehicles, the fuel, those kinds of issues that would allow us to do a fourfold increase or a tenfold increase in the number of acres to be treated each year.

Miller: There’s also the question of smoke which is both a scientific question and a political one. [Among] people who have to deal with smoke for months at a time, maybe serious smoke depending on where they live during fire season, how much are they going to have to put up with in the off season as well?

Bailey: Yeah, that’s gonna be the issue and it’s hard to put a number on it. And it is certainly going to be more, but it’s an area that we’ve made strides in recently. With that maybe the silver lining to the increase in wildfire. With the Labor Day fires last year, in communities like my home community of Corvallis, we were told to stay inside for 10 days [because of] the hazardous levels of smoke here in the valley. So there is going to be a trade off and I tell groups that there is no future without fire and smoke.

So it’s just a matter of how and when we want these things to burn. And the nice part of prescribed fire is that we’re choosing the conditions under which to burn and what is going to burn. So it allows us to burn only woody fuels that are ready to be burned. And we can select the weather events where there’s atmospheric instability and so you get smoke lift at least during the day, maybe there’s some smoke settling in the evenings.

We can choose the wind direction that takes the smoke away from major metropolitan areas So we can keep both the quantity down of the smoke that is impacting humans and also the quality. It is much better. It’s a lower level of smoke and it has far fewer natural and artificial contaminants because, remember, when these large wildfire events are going, it’s burning a lot of woody material or is attempting to burn a lot of woody material that isn’t ready to burn. And so that impacts the air quality in what the smoke is made up of. But it’s also burning houses and automobiles and such.

Miller: I mentioned that you were a former wildland firefighter yourself back in the ‘80s when suppression was the name of the game. How do you think about that now?

Bailey: Yes, that’s part of my personal as well as professional journey. A lot has changed in these three or four decades of my career and it’s changed in terms of our understanding of fire history and fire ecology. It’s changed in terms of the tools and technologies that we have for managing wildfire, but also for doing prescribed burning. But in the 80′s it was just where we were as land managers and it was a relatively stable climatic period and there were billions fewer people on this planet.

So those were conditions where we could maintain that illusion of control — the Smokey Bear message that communities could be protected from forest fires and the thought that that was the way actually to protect the forest. Both of those were wrong. And so the profession has changed and I have changed personally with the thought that fire is yes, a destructive force. But it’s also a creative force and the peoples on these lands for ten, fifteen, 20,000 years knew this balance between the destructive forces and the creative forces of fire and how important it is as a land management tool in and of itself to keep the fuel levels down, to recycle the nutrients, to stimulate some very unique ecosystem responses, and to keep that total level of smoke down.

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