Scene from Watsonville fire in California
Scene from Watsonville fire in CaliforniaCourtesy alexthompson
That is the question. Controlled burning is a technique where by intentional fires are set to clear forests of debris. Fires sparked by lighting have always been a part of the life cycle of forests. Though it seems counterintuitive, fire can actually be a very healthy thing. It clears the forest floor strengthening older trees by giving them more access to soil nutrients while also acting as a kind of natural recycling. Regular burning (burning that mimics what formerly naturally occurred in forests) can actually reduce the severity of fires such as the one burning in northern California.

Sounds great! But, what if you live near a forest scheduled to burn? Though it is called a “controlled burn” I would certainly be skittish about the combination of control and burn. Fires can be extremely dangerous, but scientists utilize many tools for tracking weather and wind patterns prior to burning. They have extensive topographical information that allows them to track the path of the fire. There are also many resources available for homeowners.

Do the risks of controlled burning outweigh the risk of uncontrollable wildfires? Ultimately nature has the power to override any hesitations I may have about whether I want a fire in my backyard. So I have to ask, what is my role in fire and forest ecology?

Your Comments, Thoughts, Questions, Ideas

JGordon's picture
JGordon says:

In my experience, at least, living near a controlled burn isn't a very big deal—my parents' place backs up to William O'Brien State Park, and they do controlled burns there every year (never the whole park, but different chunks each summer).

If they do it right, it's not like having a forest fire sweep through your neighborhood. The flame is low, and they keep burning restricted to one area at a time. It might mean a day or two where everything smells like a camp fire, but it's actually kind of cool; the forests and fields look strange after burning, and its interesting watching everything grow back.

That said, I suppose a controlled burn in a smallish state park in MN isn't exactly the same thing as huge tracks of forest burning in California.

posted on Thu, 06/26/2008 - 9:20am
jimh's picture
jimh says:

Having worked on teams doing controlled burns on prairies a few times, I can say that it is really important that the leader and the team are well-trained and experienced. you need to be able to react instantly to sudden shifts and changes or disaster can result, because fires can jump out of control so quickly.

posted on Thu, 06/26/2008 - 11:23am
Matt Janas's picture
Matt Janas says:

the thing about fire is that its really hot

posted on Thu, 07/24/2008 - 3:54pm

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