The discrepancy between federal and nonfederal prescribed-fire-use trends is a direct result of a severe lack of funding—fire-prevention budgets (which include prescribed fire, thinning, and other mitigation measures) in the USFS and BLM made up no more than 25 percent of the funds provided by the federal government for suppression efforts from 2014 to 2019. Federal land agencies are growing more and more suppression-focused, while prescribed-fire initiatives continue to take the back burner on federal lands.
The Bureau of Indian Affairs is the only federal agency that has markedly increased its prescribed-fire acreage, up by 3.7 percent since 1998. Tribes have been taking greater authority over their land management and reintegrating the cultural burning practices that they historically performed. Combined with natural fires, these cultural burns did the same work as modern prescribed burns, but were snuffed out by European settlers. By the early 1900s, federal land managers had instituted full-suppression firefighting, in which any wildfire was suppressed as quickly as possible; this practice prevented fires from clearing underbrush and doing the crucial ecological work they’ve always done in western forests, resulting in landscapes that have become more overgrown, unhealthy, and flammable by the year.
Photos: Dozens of wildfires burn across California
Fire managers might have been able to reverse this trend back in the 1980s and ’90s—if they’d been given appropriate funding, policy changes, and resources for aggressive prescribed-burning programs. But an extra three decades of drought, trees being killed by bugs, and vegetation growth in forests has resulted in much larger and more unruly wildfires. Humans may no longer have control over how fire interacts with the American landscape. As the fire historian Stephen Pyne told me in an interview in July: “Fire by prescription assumes that you can identify the place, you can arrange it, you can manage it, and do it in advance under your terms. I don’t think we’re setting the terms anymore.”
Some fire managers have taken a more radical approach to forest management: using wildfires to help meet fire-management objectives. This strategy allows wildfires to do the large-scale forest-management work that they are wont to do, and that they’ve done for millennia.
According to data from the USFS, just 2 percent of wildfires that the service tries to suppress in their early stages become the huge conflagrations that burn uncontrollably, destroy communities and infrastructure, and end up on the news. The rest are suppressed in the so-called initial-attack stage or eventually burn themselves out and are, by and large, uneventful. They burn in non-extreme weather conditions and usually remain at the low to moderate severity that is the historical norm for many landscapes that rely on fire. Instead of spending months preparing a prescribed burn that may treat a couple thousand acres, the fire community is now accepting that wildfires themselves can be used to accomplish much more of the forest management needed to prevent large, destructive fires in the heat of fire season. The idea is simple: If the location is right, if extreme weather is not predicted, and if the appropriate resources are on hand to help should anything go awry, allowing wildfires to burn naturally—with viable fire lines established ahead of time—could be the best way to accomplish widespread forest management.