Prescribed Burns: Can They Save California?

Prescribed Burns: Can They Save California?

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Everyone in California dreads the fire season, which seems to get longer every year due to climate change. It is hard to enjoy a warm summer's day when the sky is an eerie orange-grey and your lungs are filled with smoke. From 2016 to 2020, wildfires in the state have increased from 6,959 to 7,335. Even more shocking is the jump in acres burned, with an increase from 669,534 acres in 2016 to 1,666,286 acres in 2020. As California’s climate is becoming drier as rainfall is decreasing, experts are looking for strategies to help prevent wildfires from increasing in intensity.

One old technique called prescribed burning has been proven to be very successful at preventing large wildfires. Indigenous groups developed this method, sometimes referred to as “cultural burning”, centuries ago. The technique involves removing small trees and brush and then setting intentional fires to specific areas of land. Combined, these actions help clear natural spaces of dry and flammable debris in order to prevent the rapid movement and intensity of wildfires. But they were prevented from practicing prescribed burning at the beginning of the 20th century when modern firefighting techniques were deemed more successful.

History of Fire Suppression

The long and robust history of fire suppression in the United States is tied to the creation of the U.S. Forest Service in 1905 and the establishment of the National Park Service in 1916. In 1910, a series of destructive wildfires swept across the Western United States. In total, three million acres were burned across Montana, Idaho, and Washington. In the aftermath of these fires, many people agreed that the extreme damage could have been prevented by fighting the fire more fiercely. This attitude ultimately shaped national fire policy at the time to one centered around fire prevention and suppression. This led to the reduction, and in some places complete elimination, of light or prescribed burns.

Burnt Area 1910
Acres burned in the fires of 1910 in Idaho. Source:

Indigenous Knowledge

The systematic killing and removal of indigenous people from their native lands such as the later established Yosemite and Sequoia National Parks over more than two centuries led to a significant loss of knowledge concerning native techniques of tending to nature. After the horrendous fires of 1910, indigenous communities were completely banned from practicing cultural burning because modern fire prevention did not comprehend the connection between a healthy ecosystem and controlled burning. Burning helped them keep the ecosystems healthy and thriving, which in turn led to ample game and resources on which their communities relied. It also connected them to the traditions of their ancestors who had been practicing burning long before them.

Some plants used by indigenous groups, such as deer grass and sumac rely on fire to spur new growth and kill off predators. Without the help of fire, these plants struggle to thrive, which has a heavy impact on indigenous people who use them for artistic production such as basket weaving, spiritual and everyday needs. As Ron W. Goode, of the North Fork Mono Tribe, told KCET in an interview: “we are burning to perfect this resource to supply resources for our culture.”

Photo of a deergrass and sumac basket.

Photo of deergrass and sumac basket. Source:;id=38481;type=101

Why Burning Is Important

Although it may seem counterintuitive, fire is very important for California’s ecology. Clearing out dry leaves and debris reduces the amount of fuel for wildfires, which prevents them from becoming large and destructive. They also keep invasive insect populations in check that would otherwise cause harm to native plants. They help plants and the landscape regenerate. Nutrients are returned to the soil in the form of ash, and seeds are dispersed. Some plants, like the knobcone pine, only disperse their seeds when in contact with fire. Therefore, fire suppression can actually be detrimental to a healthy and thriving ecosystem.

Photo of a knob cone pinecone

Photo of a knob cone pinecone. Source:

The Process of Prescribed Burning

A lot of planning and thought go into every prescribed burn. It is crucial to prevent the fire from jumping from its designated area and burning uncontrollably. Sarah Gibson, a “burn boss” in training told the New York Times she only burns “when I’m confident that either it's not going to escape, or...I’m going to immediately catch it”. Fire crew will use both natural firebreaks, like bodies of water, and man-made fire breaks such as mowed areas and roads. The burn will only take place on a day with low wind, high humidity, and low temperatures. The fire is always started downwind next to a firebreak, to make sure it doesn’t move too fast. Once that fire is established and burning well, the crew will light fires on each side and the top of the plot of land. At the end of the burn, the crew will put out any lingering flames and drench the area in water.

A prescribed burn in Fort Ord, CA.

A prescribed burn in Fort Ord, CA. Source:

What Is Happening Now?

Not until the 1970s did national fire policy slowly include some prescribed burns when emerging research showed the positive impact this method had on wildfire management. But only in the past few years has prescribed burning been more widely accepted and suggested by the state as a means to control increasing wildfire threats.

Today, with wildfires posing an immense threat to both wildlife and property, federal, state, and private, “burn bosses” are involved in setting prescribed burns throughout California. In fact, in 2021 California Governor Gavin Newsom signed legislation that encourages more prescribed burns in the state. The bill he passed, SB 322, enacts legal protection for parties who practice prescribed burning for the benefit of the public protecting those who were previously hesitant to practice these burns due to legal and other obstacles they faced.

This change in legislation and attitude has a beneficial impact on California’s indigenous communities as well. As Rick O’Rourke, who grew up on the Yurok reservation in California, explained in The Guardian, “our first agreement with our creator was to tend the land. It was taken away from us and now we’re trying to reclaim it.” Although the process is slow, tribes like the Yurok in Northern California finally have the ability to participate in cultural burns again.

Hope For The Future

The truth is scary: California is in an extreme drought, and its fire season is growing in length and intensity. Fire suppression has been harmful to the landscape’s health and resilience, but it’s not too late to change course. Returning California’s relationship with fire to one of respect and understanding is a critical piece to saving the state from unchecked wildfires.

Resource on learning to live with fire:

Savita Joshi//  10 March 2022 // #GoingGreen

Originally from California, Savita Joshi lives in Berlin. She is working towards a Masters in Digital Journalism at HMKW. It is through her writing that she combines her passion for human rights, the environment, and reproductive justice with her love of words.