Wildfire Solutions for Agriculture, Part 1: Controlled Burns

Posted on Friday, February 5th, 2021 by Brian Shobe
Jeffery Stackhouse, Humboldt County UCCE livestock and natural resource advisor, participates in a restoration-focused controlled burn in deciduous oak woodlands on a ranch in eastern Humboldt County. Photo credit: Lenya Quinn-Davidson

Note: This is the first blog in a 4-part series on solutions to address the impacts of wildfire on agricultural communities.

The Context: Wildfires’ Growing Impacts

The frequency and severity of catastrophic wildfires are increasing in California for a combination of reasons, including: climate change, a century of fire suppression, past logging practices, the dislocation of indigenous peoples and their longstanding cultural fire practices, increased human-caused ignitions, and increased development in high fire-risk areas.

Wildfires have a range of impacts on the state’s agricultural communities. These include exposure to toxic air pollution, direct fire damage to farms and ranches, smoke damage to crops, forced evacuations, increased insurance premiums in rural areas, post-fire soil erosion, and negative impacts to water quality.

One recent University of California study estimates the total economic impact of the 2018 fires alone was $149 billion – equivalent to roughly two-thirds of the state’s pre-pandemic budget. Wildfires also contribute high levels of greenhouse gas (GHG) emissions to the atmosphere. The California Air Resources Board estimates the 2020 wildfires alone released 112 million metric tons of carbon dioxide (Figure E-1), which is equivalent to roughly one-fourth of the state’s total GHG emissions in 2018.

A problem of this scale and complexity requires urgent action and multiple solutions. One of those solutions is controlled burns, which are sometimes referred to as prescribed fire/burns or cultural fire/burns in the context of indigenous land stewardship.

One Solution: Controlled Burns

Controlled burns consist of low-intensity fires that are intentionally lit in ideal weather conditions to treat a specified area to achieve specific objectives (e.g. reduce fine or ladder fuels, enhance native species, and/or manage invasive species). While these controlled burns can create short-term smoke impacts, they often mitigate the risk of larger, catastrophic fires which cause significantly higher air pollution, ecological, and economic impacts.

Many tribes in California have used controlled burns to steward fire-adapted landscapes and protect their communities for thousands of years. In Tending the Wild: Native American Knowledge and the Management of California’s Natural Resources, USDA-NRCS ethnoecologist M. Kat Anderson writes: “Fire was the most significant, effective, efficient, and widely employed vegetation management tool of California Indian tribes…the fire scientists Robert Martin and David Sapsis estimate that between 5.6 million and 13 million acres of California burned annually under both lightning and indigenous people’s fire regimes.”

Bill Tripp, the Director of Natural Resources and Environmental Policy with the Karuk Tribe’s Department of Natural Resources, said in a hearing last fall that revitalizing a cultural relationship to fire is key:

 “Our relationship with fire is one that is supposed to be natural to place. Revitalizing our human-fire relationships is paramount to the preservation of our cultural identity. This is why we separate prescribed fire from cultural burning in the discussion. We can prescribe all the fire we want, and we can use it as a great shared stewardship and shared learning tool; but until our relationship with fire resumes its place as a cultural process that aligns with indigenous socio-ecological functions relevant to our homelands, we will not even begin to address the impacts of an era of fire exclusion coupled with climate impacts.”

Dr. Crystal Kolden, a Professor of Fire Science at UC Merced, wrote in the journal Fire in 2019: The scientific literature has repeatedly reported that prescribed fire is often the most effective means of achieving such goals by reducing fuels and wildfire hazard and restoring ecological function to fire-adapted ecosystems in the United States following a century of fire exclusion.” Despite the scientific consensus and economic case for controlled burns, Dr. Kolden’s research found that the amount of acreage that has been subject to controlled burns has remained stable or actually decreased in the past two decades. This “fire deficit” is the result of many factors, including a number of challenges we summarize below.

To address the state’s fire deficit, CalFIRE’s latest Forest Carbon Plan sets a target of implementing approximately 500,000 acres of vegetation treatment, which includes both thinning and controlled burns in non-federal forests, woodlands, and chaparral ecosystem per year. To achieve those targets, individual land owners, tribes, businesses and nonprofits – which collectively own approximately 40 percent of the state’s forests and a sizeable share of the state’s grasslands – will all need to play a role.

Several tribes are actively seeking partnerships with government agencies that respect their sovereignty and enable them to re-introduce controlled burns to the landscape.

Many farmers and ranchers, tribes, and fire and rangeland experts have also recently organized themselves into Prescribed Burn Associations (PBAs), which UCCE Fire Advisor Lenya Quinn-Davidson describes as “community cooperatives for prescribed fire.” To further facilitate the implementation of controlled burns, the state will certify its first class of “burn bosses” in 2021, thanks to a program established by SB 1260 (Jackson) in 2018.

Challenges to Scaling Up “Good Fire”

With all of this growing interest in controlled burns, what is stopping California from scaling up this practice?

  1. Liability concerns and lack of prescribed fire insurance: California is a “simple negligence” state, which means that the landowner can be held legally responsible for property damage, suppression costs, and the cost of investigations and reports if a prescribed burn escapes its planned area and “reasonable care” was not taken. This liability standard, plus the inexistence of prescribed fire insurance in the state, together act as considerable disincentives for private landowners to implement controlled burns. The certified burn boss program is intended to address these concerns, but the experts we interviewed are concerned there will not be enough incentive for people to enroll in the burn boss program. For example, certified burn bosses will not be able to obtain prescribed fire insurance or enjoy a different liability standard. In comparison, other states such as Florida, Washington, and Colorado offer certified burn bosses the benefit of gross negligence standards. For more on prescribed fire liability issues, see “Prescribed Fire Liability in California” by UCCE Advisors Lenya Quinn-Davidson and Jeffery Stackhouse.
  1. Permitting costs and delays: Obtaining permits from Air Quality Management Districts (AQMDs) for smoke management plans often takes weeks or months, forcing ranchers and tribes to miss limited “burn windows.” In some counties, the cost of permits from AQMDs is simply cost-prohibitive. This is especially vexing for tribes seeking to do burns on their own sovereign land. If the prescribed fire project is state-funded, it has historically been required to go through the CEQA process, which almost always ends up costing more than the actual implementation.
  1. Fear of fire and smoke, and limited resources for outreach, training, and coordination: For the past half century, fire management has been largely relegated to government agencies. Margo Robbins, Co-Founder and Executive Director of the Cultural Fire Management Council and a Member of the Yurok Tribe, says that “Fire must be returned to the hands of the people,” and that we must “work together to build a culture of fire that is inclusive of all ethnicities and socioeconomic backgrounds.” Fears of fire and intolerance of smoke also hinders progress. To adequately respond to the wildfire crisis, we must see fire as a natural part of our ecosystem and a tool for stewardship, and smoke as something we manage rather than eliminate. As Margo Robbins put it: “There is no such thing as a no-smoke option. We will have either limited amounts of wood smoke from prescribed burns or massive amounts toxic smoke from wildfires. People must choose their smoke.” Currently, there are only a handful of extension-focused UCCE Fire Advisors in the state, who play a critical role in advancing our scientific understanding of fire in specific regions, educating the public about fire, and training land owners and managers in science-based, ecological fire mitigation practices. Regional planning and coordination for scaling up controlled burns and sustaining long-term vegetation management is also lacking. 

Policy Solutions to Scaling Up Controlled Burns

 This fall, we interviewed fire experts and practitioners, including ranchers.  Based on those interviews, the following policy recommendations can further scale up controlled burns in safe and sustainable ways:

  • Adopt gross negligence liability standards, similar to other states, for state-certified “burn bosses” to incentivize participation in the state-certified burn boss program established by SB 1260 (Jackson)
  • Create a California Prescribed Fire Insurance Claims Fund to cover exceptional losses over a certain amount to incentivize private insurers to offer prescribed fire insurance options
  • Remove obstacles to cultural burning on sovereign tribes’ lands in government permits and programs (recognizing the Tribal Authority Rule under the Clean Air Act)
  • Fund AQMDs to implement SB 1260 ($2 million per year), enabling them to more efficiently process burn permits and smoke management plans and conduct public outreach to improve public perceptions of controlled burns
  • Fund more UCCE Fire Advisor positions to increase regional fire research, education, training, and coordination
  • Fund trainings by qualified UCCE staff, RCDs, tribes, and NGOs for landowners and land managers on ecologically-beneficial controlled burn practices
  • Fund long-term regional planning and coordination of controlled burns and targeted grazing between tribes, PBAs, local governments, fire safe councils, RCDs, UCCE, and state agencies

It is still early days in the 2021 legislative session, but already more than a dozen wildfire-related bills have been introduced. Budget hearings are also now underway to discuss, among other things, the Governor’s proposed $1 billion investment in a comprehensive wildfire resilience package. We look forward to advocating for the solutions above throughout the process.

Up Next: Stay tuned for the second blog in our 4-part series on prescribed grazing.

Stay Connected
Get newsletter and blog updates and action alerts from CalCAN