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Prescribed burning bill could give forest managers better tool to prevent rather than fight fire

California Gov. Gavin Newsom has signed a new bill meant to spur more prescribed burning in California where the prevention of large fires could be accomplished through the proliferation of smaller and controlled fires.

(CN) — As the Caldor Fire encroached upon South Lake Tahoe over Labor Day weekend, the thousand-strong force of firefighters charged with protecting the houses in the area could take heart that some areas of the forest had previously been burned. 

It wasn’t previous forest fires, but prescribed burning projects carried out by Cal Fire, private property owners and the federal government that made home protection in the area a success, according to Len Nielson, prescribed fire staff chief for the California Division of Fire and Forestry, known as Cal Fire. 

“We lost fewer homes in that area than what we otherwise would have due to fuels reductions projects like prescribed burning,” Nielsen said. 

He says prescribed burns help reduce the amount of fuels that out-of-control wildland fires use to feed their wild advance through heavily forested parts of the forest. 

“We can’t fight a wall of flame that is 30 feet burning through trees,” he said. “But if you get the fuels down and the flames are only five feet high, then we can fight it.”

It happened not only during the Caldor Fire this summer, which sparked about halfway between Sacramento and Lake Tahoe and burned about 220,000 acres, destroying 782 homes in the process. Homes in proximity to where controlled burning or prescribed fire fared better than homes in parts of the forest where the trees were thicker and the underbrush denser. 

For this reason, Bill Dodd, a state senator from Napa — a region that has been prone to multiple devastating fires in the past five years — crafted a bill that will make more controlled burns possible throughout California. 

Senate Bill 332, signed into law by Governor Gavin Newsom this week, seeks to increase the use of controlled burning by reducing the financial liabilities for Native tribes and private landowners looking to perform controlled burning on their properties. 

Under old rules, property owners who conducted controlled burns that got out of control would have to pay all the bills for the state fire authorities to suppress it. Under the new rules, as long as the entities take the proper precautions and adhere to protocol, they will not have to foot the bill if they are the victim of bad luck, such as a sudden change in the weather. 

“It’s the most significant fire bill of the year,” said Paul Mason, of Pacific Forest Trust. “Insurance companies have been scared of the liability and it has constrained our ability as a state to carry out as much controlled burning as we’d like.”

Mason says good fire on the landscape is important to help reduce the severity of wildfires when they do escape and also to mimic the natural conditions of the forest before fire suppression became dominant in forest management. 

“Fire is going to happen in California,” he said. “These forests evolved alongside fire, so to say we need to have zero fires in the landscape is just not possible. But the fires we are seeing now are the ones that get away on the hot and windy days in the summer.”

If forest managers, private and public, are able to burn more on wet winter days when the wind is down, it will mean the landscape is less susceptible to the ravages of million-acre fires like the Dixie Fire that became the second-largest in state history this year. 

“Controlled burning is a valuable tool in addressing the buildup of fuels in our parched forests and wildlands,” Senator Dodd said in a statement released this week. “Its use can save us from ever-worsening conditions caused by drought and climate change.” 

The bill will also make it easier for Native tribes, who have enjoyed centuries of using fire to manage the landscape, to perform cultural burning in the oak woodlands and grasslands, where fire is used to spur the production of acorns and other culturally important items for tribes. 

The bill was also sponsored by conservationists and ranchers. 

“Those of us who work on prescribed fire have felt the need for these changes for years, but we never thought we’d see them happen,” said Lenya Quinn-Davidson, fire adviser for the University of California Cooperative Extension and director of Northern California Prescribed Fire Council.

Nielson said he can’t shake the sight of 200-feet high flames on the Creek Fire in the summer of 2020. But he also remembers that many of the homes in the Shaver Lake area, where prescribed burning was used extensively, survived that devastating fire.

“More and more prescribed burning at the right pace and scale can make California safer,” he said. 

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