Fighting wildfires with fire: Why scientists are using prescribed burns to manage forests

Cars drive along the San Francisco Bay Bridge under a smoky sky.
Cars drive along the San Francisco Bay Bridge under an orange smoke-filled sky at midday in San Francisco in September 2020.
Harold Postic | AFP via Getty Images 2020

Less rainfall and rising temperatures could lead to a worse than average wildfire season in 2021.

Many Western states battled record-setting blazes last year, including California where more than 4 million acres burned.

By modern standards, last year’s fire season was massive, but researchers estimate that historically California typically saw between 4.4 to 11.9 million acres burn annually.

Scientists are concerned that, paradoxically, the modern, aggressive approach of suppressing wildfires has created conditions that make blazes harder to control.

One approach to preventing wildfires from becoming too large is controlled burns, which clear out potential fuel sources such as dead trees and overly dense vegetation.

But implementing prescribed burns at a large scale will be difficult due to sprawling housing and development, a complex legal system, changing climate and inadequate funding.

On Thursday, MPR News host Kerri Miller spoke with a researcher and a science journalist about learning to live with fire and the tactics for managing forests more effectively.

Guests:

  • Char Miller is a professor and Director of Environmental Analysis at Pomona College in Claremont, Calif.

  • Molly Peterson is a science reporter for KQED.

To listen to the full conversation you can use the audio player above.

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