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Returning Fire To The Landscape

In this June 12, 2019 photo, a sign for a prescribed burn in the Giant Sequoia National Monument, Calif., remains posted two years after the fire.
(AP Photo/Brian Melley)

In this June 12, 2019 photo, a sign for a prescribed burn in the Giant Sequoia National Monument, Calif., remains posted two years after the fire.

Last week, the Reno-Sparks area experienced smoke and hazy conditions while authorities warned residents of high fire danger.

The smoke that hovered in the air came from California, where a prescribed fire in the Eldorado National Forest was burning.

The Caples Fire got reclassified as a wildfire, after it pushed past the perimeter forest management officials had planned for it.

But the Forest Service says prescribed fire is a crucial tool in landscape management and the vast majority of these projects burn within safe parameters.

Laurence Crabtree is Forest Supervisor for the Eldorado National Forest. He said fires are absolutely necessary for the health of the forests in the western United States but for the past century the focus has been on stopping forest fires in Forest Service land.

"We have suppressing fires for decades and we are still suppressing fires and so now these trees have continued to grow, expand, re-establish more trees and so we have dense thickets, overstocked, overcrowded conditions," he said.

Sarah Bisbing is an assistant professor of forest ecosystem science at the University of Nevada, Reno. She said western forests have evolved to need periodic fire episodes.

"Our forests of the western United States are adapted to fire and we know that fire is an ecological process that really is essential to these forests as the process of photosynthesis," she said.

Now, without fires, there is a buildup of fuel, couple that with warmer temperatures and dried out vegetation because of climate change, and add to all of that, more communities being built in forested areas, and Bisbing said all the main components that lead to wildfires are in place across the West.

Bisbing said there are between 4,000 and 5,000 prescribed burns in the U.S. every year but a lot of scientists and forest management experts would like to see that increase.

"We know that these forests are adapted to fire and we also know that increased use of prescribed fire is really ecologically beneficial to these landscapes and is going to be necessary to treat fuels and restore our fire-adapted landscapes," she said.

While most everyone agrees that prescribed burns are necessary, they are not that easy to do, Crabtree said.

First, an area that needs to be burn must be decided on and an environmental impact statement must be issued. The public needs to be notified and their comments are taken into account. 

Once that is done, the Forest Service must come up with a plan that includes a plan for the smoke and a plan for the safety of the firefighters who will monitor the fire. 

However, like with all good plans involving natural areas - conditions change. Crabtree pointed out that when they started the Caples Fire there was snow and rain in the area, but a week later, strong winds started and pushed the fire beyond the fire lines.

Crabtree said it has long been a question in the West of how to burn the forest but also protect property and human lives.

"I don't have a plan yet that will have a smokeless prescribed burning plan or one that will involve no risk," he said.

Laurence Crabtree, Forest Supervisor, Eldorado National Forest;  Sarah Bisbing, Assistant Professor, Forest Ecosystem Science, UNR 

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Bert is a reporter and producer based in Reno, where he covers the state legislature and stories that resonate across Nevada. He began his career in journalism after studying abroad during the summer of 2011 in Egypt, during the Arab Spring. Before he joined Nevada Public Radio and Capital Public Radio, Bert was a contributor at KQED and the Sacramento News & Review. He was also a photographer, video editor and digital producer at the East Bay Express.