Why scientists want to fight California fires with more fires

BERKELEY, Calif, (KGO) -- The intensity of the fires this year and their rapid spread is alarming fire scientists, who say these kinds of forest fires will escalate in years ahead unless we take action. They want more prescribed burns.

Back in 1984, 50 homes and two hotels burned down in Tahoe City. There have always been fires in California forests. But never like this.

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Fires this year have twice crested the Sierra Nevada, burning at high elevations over granite peaks with sparse vegetation, and that is stunning to fire scientists.

Crystal Kolden is a fire scientist at UC Merced.

"We are not able to contain these supercharged fires that are feeding off these climate change-induced conditions, and we need to start approaching these fires very differently," she said.

Fire scientists are advocating fighting fire with more fires - ones that are purposefully set.

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UC Berkeley fire scientist Scott Stephens explains, "We can do some burning in the winter, but we need a workforce to do that. Right now we have no work force to do that. Firefighters are hired just for the fire season. But there is talk in Congress to change that to have year round kinds of resources. And we can do aerial ignition. "

Kolden added, "What the science tells us, is we need more of the type of low intensity fire that California landscapes evolved with. Having 1,000 fires going across the state, really small, only a day or two, producing a much smaller amount of smoke."

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But off-season controlled burns could mean learning to live with levels of smoke in the air year round. The density of trees and fuel on the ground also have to be addressed.

Stephens predicted, "My back-of-the-envelope calculation says we need to do 10 times more acreage per year in mitigation that we're doing now because we're just not making a difference. We may have a prescribed fire training center coming to California someday. That's in legislation both state and federal. And then we also need more capacity to do the restoration thinning and to sell some of those products and break even on the costs. "

Fire scientists warned If we don't change the fundamentals, which is the structure of the state's forests, we are not going to get out of this hole. They say, "It's the only way forward."


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