While fire of any kind may seem disastrous, a wildfire expert at Colorado State University said prescribed burns are a crucial way to control forest and grassland fires.
"One reason to consider prescribed fire is that it reduces fuel loads while mimicking natural processes," said Phil Omi, director of Colorado State’s WESTFIRE, or Western Forest Fire Research Center. "The other is that it’s more effective cost-wise when done correctly. Prescribed fire, aside from its low cost, does carry some downsides in terms of risk of escape or the smoke that’s put up."
According to Omi, "Fire is a natural occurrence-it’s going to happen. The ongoing burning in Los Alamos means we need to do a better job of reducing fuels, because it’s only a matter of time before another ignition source would have occurred there.
"There are a variety of objectives met by clearing out a vegetative understory," Omi said. "They include reducing competition from undesired plant species, recycling nutrients, or killing invading trees or shrubs to maintain a perennial grassland, for example."
By killing less-desired species and removing biomass, the intensity of future wildfires is reduced.
"Prescribed burns are only one way to reduce fuels," said Omi. Mechanical thinning, herbicides and biological controls (for example, grazing animals) are alternatives, and the choice often depends on the goal sought.
"The best time for a prescribed burn depends on the management objective," Omi said. "In other words, some objectives call for high levels of fuel consumption requiring drier conditions, and others, for example forage rejuvenation, can be accomplished with low-intensity burns."
Controlling prescribed burns involves the same firefighting tactics as controlling a wildfire-having trained crews on hand, cutting firebreaks, being ready with supplies of water and fire retardant-with one exception, according to Omi.
"The normal techniques apply, with the biggest exception being the type of ignition technique used, for example hand vs. aerial ignition and the choice of the firing pattern, of which there are several," he said.
Regardless of method, Omi said, "You really reduce your options if you don’t reduce available fuels. What influences a fire’s behavior is the fuel, the weather and the topography, and fuel is the only factor we can really do anything about."
WESTFIRE includes a variety of Colorado State faculty specializing in wildfire issues:
- Omi; a former firefighter specializing in forest fire science;
- Douglas Rideout, professor of forest science; forest economics;
- Dennis Dean, professor of forest science; geographic information systems; Forest
- John Loomis, professor of agriculture and resource economics; natural resource economics;
- Erik Martinson, research associate in forest sciences; fire history and prescribed burns;
- Lee McDonald, professor of earth resources; hydrology;
- Skip Smith, professor of forest sciences; silviculture; and
- Rick Laven, professor of forest sciences; forest and fire ecology.