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Climate Action: Burning Forests to Avoid Megafires

Prescribed burns in the forests of the western U.S. will prevent larger wildfires and significantly cut the nation’s carbon footprint, according to a new study. Controlled burns, a forestry management strategy used to destroy underbrush and prevent wildfires, would protect the larger trees that store carbon dioxide and help offset greenhouse gas emissions. Using satellite imagery and models that calculate carbon emissions related to wildfires from 2001 to 2008, researchers predicted that prescribed burns could reduce such emissions by 18 to 25 percent — and as much as 60 percent in some areas. The burns would cut carbon emissions by 14 million metric tons annually across 11 western states. “If we reintroduce fires into our ecosystems, we may be able to protect larger trees and significantly reduce the amount of carbon released into the atmosphere by major wildfires,” said Christine Wiedinmyer, a scientist with the National Center for Atmospheric Research (NCAR) and lead author of the study being published in the journal Environmental Science and Technology. U.S. officials say forests in the West have become overgrown and vulnerable to large wildfires. That risk could be exacerbated in the future as a warming climate threatens to make forests even hotter and drier. Prescribed burns also may reduce the severity of recent insect infestations that have killed large areas of western forests.

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'Prescribed burning' has been the subject of fractious ongoing debate here in Oz for decades. It's been a common practice here to burn forest in the way you describe but the result has been decimation of diversity and destruction of soils in many instances. 'Controlled' fires also have a nasty habit of commonly becoming uncontrolled wildfires. Such burns are only successful if they're conducted during narrow window of opportunity (and by dint of good fortune) and result in further drying and thinning of forested lands that creates a cycle of ongoing conflagrations.
Far better to slowly replant with non-pyrophytic (NON-COMBUSTIBLE)species wherever possible - the kinds of trees and understoreys that have commonly been destroyed by human activity.
More highly combustible plants tend to recover faster in decimated landscapes as they're usually far more tolerant of the Sun and drier conditions than their wetter counterparts. Rainforest plants die or die back if burned, but entire rainforests rarely burn; unlike pine or eucalypt forests, for instance.
Regular burning is an attractive option for many arsonists, intentional and otherwise. Replacing easily combustible plants with less combustible ones can be a fruitful exercise in more ways than one, whereas in most cases burning=sterilisation and ever more burning.
See http://hermetic.blog.com/?s=fire


Posted by: new illuminati on 19 Mar 10

the comment posted by new illumination is only partial true. much research is being done on prescribed fire ie. spring burns have less residual effect than fall burns. having lived through the 1994 tyee creek in the entiat valley, state of washington and preped our land for the inevitable fire we learned much. good timber management is good fire management. 10 years prior to the fire we thinned and pruned our 20 acres of timber trying to mimic mother nature as she would have done with historical low intensity fires before the advent of fire fighting. We then voluntarily thinned 6 acres of USFS timber adjacent to our house. the only non crowning fire in that area was on those 26 acres. once again good timber management is good fire management, and on none of that acreage was there merchantable; it was all sweat equity with no financial return, but post fire we now live in an island of green;fire proofed. anybody can do as we did; contact your state of federal forester and volunteer to thin out those small, fire prone trees that some don't want to burn. it just takes a written agreement, a chainsaw, a set of chaps, and a heck of a lot of sweat. take on an acre or 2 or even 5, do it as a family; a piece of this earth will be better for it, and you will see real results.


Posted by: m.k.mallon on 20 Mar 10

the comment posted by new illumination is only partial true. much research is being done on prescribed fire ie. spring burns have less residual effect than fall burns. having lived through the 1994 tyee creek in the entiat valley, state of washington and preped our land for the inevitable fire we learned much. good timber management is good fire management. 10 years prior to the fire we thinned and pruned our 20 acres of timber trying to mimic mother nature as she would have done with historical low intensity fires before the advent of fire fighting. We then voluntarily thinned 6 acres of USFS timber adjacent to our house. the only non crowning fire in that area was on those 26 acres. once again good timber management is good fire management, and on none of that acreage was there merchantable timber; it was all sweat equity with no financial return, but post fire we now live in an island of green;fire proofed. anybody can do as we did; contact your state or federal forester and volunteer to thin out those small, fire prone trees that some don't want to burn. it just takes a written agreement, a chainsaw, a set of chaps, and a heck of a lot of sweat. take on an acre or 2 or even 5, do it as a family; a piece of this earth will be better for it, and you will see real results.


Posted by: mkmallon on 20 Mar 10

New Illuminati: Your comment on prescribed burns troubled me because I believe that prescribed burns are necessary to protect nearby home owners and to save forests. At the same time, I would be nervous during a prescribed burn near me. So how do I deal with that fear and still speak out for prescribed burns?

There are two main kinds of forest fires, ground fires and canopy fires. In a ground fire the burn stays down on the ground, burning underbrush and smaller trees. A canopy fire burns the tops of big trees as well as the entire understory.

The catastrophic fires that burn so hot that they sterilize everything both above the ground and down perhaps a foot into the soil are called canopy fires. They send out fireballs of superheated gasses that jump half a mile as a cloud of smoke and then burst into flame when they get to oxygen. These fireballs ignite new patches of forest that can trap fire fighters between two walls of flame. Our fire policy should focus on avoiding canopy fires. 

Native Americans managed the forest by setting frequent ground fires. This cleared out underbrush, making it easier to hunt and creating healthy forests.

Since the glaciers retreated, many of our forests co-evolved with people setting fires. People setting fires are thus a natural part of many Western ecosystems.

The common alternative is to suppress fire and allow fuel loads to build up to the point where a catastrophic canopy fire becomes inevitable. Even when a controlled burn gets away, the conditions for controlling it are probably better than if you waited for summer lightning to set it off in the driest period. Then no life form and no house in its path can be saved. Such a fire cannot be turned back except by weather.

A prescribed burn in a forest near you raises the short term risk, but greatly reduces the long term risk to property, life and forest. In most cases, after some frank conversation concerning the risks, we should be brave enough to accept the short term risk to increase our long term safety. We don't even need the fact that the burns are necessary to restore the forest to a healthy condition or their role in fighting climate change. In most cases where there is someone around to object, the burn makes sense on the home safety alone.

See my blog post: Two Kinds of Forest Fire and The Logic of Prescribed Burning – http://bit.ly/aplKYb


Posted by: Gifford Pinchot III on 21 Mar 10

Controlled burns have been debated for years. It has pluses and minuses obviously. Besides possibly cutting the nation’s carbon footprint, the burns help replace existing plant communities by setting off disturbance, which is the foundation for different plants to grow and adapt within time creating a more diverse ecology. On the downside is the health concerns of people living near the burn. People with asthma, emphysema and other conditions could be aggravated by the smoke and make breathing difficult.


Posted by: Rodney Ash on 28 Oct 10

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