A new study backs up what Ventura County firefighters already knew: A controlled blaze at a time and place of their choosing can prevent a disaster later. With that in mind, local firefighters became fire starters when they conducted their first controlled burn of the year to get rid of built-up vegetation that can fuel a brush blaze into a monster wildfire.
Controlled burns like Wednesday’s – which cleared at least seven acres of tall grass on a ranch in Hidden Valley – can also revitalize soil and give trainees the skills to battle wildfires. Yet despite their effectiveness, a study concluded not enough controlled burns are taking place in the western U.S. to keep wildfires from raging out of control.
The study by University of Idaho researcher Crystal A. Kolden laid the blame mostly on federal agencies that control large amounts of land in the West.
But Kolden conceded that the agencies’ resources are also consumed by firefighting instead of prevention and that they’re dealing with a public that’s more fearful of controlled burns in the western U.S. than elsewhere. Public concerns include excessive smoke and flames getting out of control.
Even if federal agencies seem reluctant to conduct controlled burns, state and local agencies aren’t, the study found.
“Whenever we have to opportunity to do them, we do them,” said Capt. Brian McGrath, a spokesman for the Ventura County Fire Department.
He said his agency is committed to using controlled burns to prevent wildfires, a sentiment echoed by the California Department of Forestry and Fire Protection, also known as Cal Fire.
Cal Fire spokesman Scott McLean said the state has stepped up its prevention efforts after a series of major wildfire seasons that included Ventura County’s Thomas, Woolsey and Hill fires. “The idea behind it is to provide for the safety and protection of property and bring our forests and lands back to resiliency,” McLean said, noting that the recent drought has increased the amount of dry vegetation that fuels wildfires.
‘We have a lot of work ahead of us’
Tasked by Gov. Gavin Newsom with identifying the top 35 areas where fuel-reduction efforts are needed, Cal Fire has come up with about 90,000 acres of land to target. As of early May, Cal Fire had burned 10,518 acres this year, according to McLean, a number that’s grown in the past 30 days.
The state has increased funding for the efforts, letting Cal Fire dedicate six hand crews to thinning wildfire fuel, and has sent 110 National Guard troops to help for six months.
Cal Fire has also performed about 100,000 inspections of defensible spaces this year, and aims to complete 250,000 through December. Despite the doubled-down efforts, McLean cautioned against thinking the problem is taken care of with extra money and resources. “We have a lot of work ahead of us for quite some time,” he said.
The burden in California may be on Cal Fire and local agencies.
Kolden’s study, published Wednesday in the peer-reviewed journal Fire, showed that in places where controlled burns have increased in the past two decades, they’ve mostly been conducted by state or local agencies. In the same period, controlled burns by federal agencies shrank from more than 90% of burns to less than 30%.
Kolden found that from 1998 to 2018, controlled burns grew in acreage by 5% per year throughout the U.S., although there was a 2.3% decrease in Southern California. Kolden found 70% of all controlled burns and 98% of the increase was in the southeastern U.S., which Kolden said could be why that region has seen fewer recent wildfire disasters than the western U.S.
‘There’s a lot to take into account’
While the Ventura County Fire Department may be sold on the idea, conducting controlled burns is easier said than done, according to McGrath. Choosing the location alone can be complicated. “You have to take into consideration the impact on wildlife, water runoff, the type of fuel,” McGrath said. “There’s a lot to take into account.”
The jurisdiction of the land can also play a huge role, as state or federal land is more highly regulated than county or privately-owned land.
“It’s a lot easier to do on private property,” McGrath said. “We’re under the same protocol as an agriculture company burning their crops.”
Even with a location picked out, unexpected factors such as high temperatures or gusty winds can delay controlled burns. McGrath said his agency works closely with the Ventura County Air Pollution Control District to determine the best days to perform burns.
But Mother Nature sometimes beats firefighters to the punch.
“We had a half dozen scheduled, and the Thomas Fire took them all out,” McGrath said.
Jeremy Childs is a breaking news and public safety reporter covering the night shift for the Ventura County Star. He can be reached by calling 805-437-0208 or emailing email@example.com.
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