The prescribed burn paradox: Climate change makes them harder to contain, and more necessary

Savannah Maher Sep 16, 2022
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New Mexico fires from the vantage point of Air Force One on June 11, 2022. Jim Watson/AFP via Getty Images

The prescribed burn paradox: Climate change makes them harder to contain, and more necessary

Savannah Maher Sep 16, 2022
Heard on:
New Mexico fires from the vantage point of Air Force One on June 11, 2022. Jim Watson/AFP via Getty Images
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In June, the U.S. Forest Service announced a 90-day pause on prescribed burning. That’s the setting of intentional, controlled forest fires to burn up excess fuel and prevent more destructive wildfires. 

The pause was a response to the largest wildfire in New Mexico’s history, which started when prescribed fire got out of control. After a review, the Forest Service announced it will resume the practice – with some new rules in place. 

It’s rare for prescribed burns to get out of control. In New Mexico, the problem was out-of-date protocols that didn’t account for climate change. 

James Biggs, who studies fire behavior at New Mexico Highlands University, said climate change also makes the need for safe prescribed burning more urgent. 

“There’s not a lot of money in decades past that have been put into wildfire science. That’s one thing that absolutely has to change at this point,” he said.

So far, the Forest Service has only announced new restrictions on the practice. Now, prescribed burns will have to begin within 24-hours of being authorized, and senior administrators will need to be present for complex burns. 

“Which means that they’re less likely to happen,” said Michael Wara, with Stanford’s Sustainability Accelerator. “We need to have much greater levels of resources to safely conduct these burns.” 

Because, Wara said, wildfire is inevitable. And without proper fuel management, fires will be larger and more destructive. 

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