<img height="1" width="1" style="display:none" src="https://q.quora.com/_/ad/c23eff63613649339a864dbd6dedfb92/pixel?tag=ViewContent&amp;noscript=1">

Breaking Down Barriers: Unlocking the Full Potential of Controlled Burns

Image of team conducting a controlled burn

The increasing frequency and severity of wildfires in recent years have highlighted the urgent need for effective wildfire management strategies. Yet, the powerful tool of controlled burns remains significantly underused. In this post, we’ll delve into the misconceptions and obstacles that have hindered the widespread adoption of controlled burns. We will explore how fostering collaboration could be the key to overcoming these barriers. Specifically, we’ll look at:

Join us as we unravel the complexities and potential solutions surrounding one of the most crucial fire management strategies.

Why controlled burns are essential to wildfire resilience

Controlled burning, which we also call prescribed fire, is one of several methods for thinning vegetation and reducing fuels to mitigate the risk of catastrophic wildfires. Not only is it effective; it is an irreplaceable component in the arsenal of wildfire mitigation tools.

  • When applied correctly, controlled burns are an effective method for managing the risk of larger, more catastrophic fires.

For example, a recent, large-scale study out of Stanford found that the chances of a high-intensity fire drop by 64% for the first year after a low-intensity fire. What’s more, low-intensity fires continue to provide some level of protection for at least six years. Another study found that prescribed burning can reduce wildfire intensity by more than 70%. Yet another study found that controlled burns can reduce overall exposure to wildfire smoke (with the reduction varying by region).

  • Other methods of thinning or fuel reduction are not substitutes for controlled burning.

A 20-year study at Blodgett Forest Research Station found that plots of land treated with both thinning and controlled burning were significantly more resilient to the effects of wildfire than plots that received no treatment or thinning only.

These findings were put to a real-life test when the Mosquito Fire broke out in 2022 and breached the Blodgett study area. The fire burned through one of the control plots, scorching 60% of the trees, before encountering a plot that had been treated with prescribed burning. The treated plot burned less intensely, allowing fire fighters to use it as a staging area.

Similarly, the U.S. Forest Service and Klamath Tribes had been conducting treatments in the Fremont-Winema National Forest when the Bootleg Fire broke out in 2021. More than 2/3 of the fire’s 400,000-acre footprint burned at a high intensity. Yet, the areas that had received both thinning and controlled burns were considerably more resilient to the effects of the wildfire than were the areas that had received no treatment or thinning only.

Unfortunately, misguided attitudes held back the adoption of controlled burning throughout much of the twentieth century.

Myths that have blocked acceptance of controlled burning

For over 100 years, the prevailing attitude toward wildfires was that all fires should be suppressed.

The policy of fire suppression in the United States dates back at least to the 1880s when the Army was assigned to protect Yellowstone National Park. It became even more pronounced in 1910 after a series of fires known as the “Big Blowup” burned 3 million acres across Montana, Idaho, and Washington in only two days. Forest Service officials convinced themselves and Congress that “only total fire suppression could prevent such an event from occurring again.” By 1935, that view had been codified into the Forest Service’s 10 a.m. policy, which declared that every fire should be suppressed no later than 10 a.m. the day after it was reported.

The policy of total suppression, however, was based on several misconceptions about wildfires:

  • Myth #1: We can suppress all fires.

The reality is that a policy of total suppression merely delays the inevitable while increasing the likelihood of bigger, more catastrophic fires. In the absence of fire, many wildlands undergo a steady buildup of living and decaying vegetation (i.e., fuel). Like snow building up on a steep slope, needing only a small disturbance to cause an avalanche, our biotas can become bloated with fuel. That is, until an ignition sparks a fire that grows so big, so quickly, and burns so intensely that we can no longer suppress it.

  • Myth #2: Fire is inherently destructive.

After co-existing with human-applied fire for millennia, plants and animals across certain ecosystems have become fire-adapted. Many have learned to live with fire; some even benefit from it. For example, some plants can release their seeds only after a fire has melted their resin encasements. For others, fire may trigger flowering or new growth. Even the destructive potential of fire can benefit an ecosystem when it roots out pests and invasive species.

Fire serves as a critical ecological process in nutrient mixing, periodic thinning, seed bed renewal, and other key elements for healthy and resilient wild systems.

Jon Fitch | Prescribed Fire Coordinator | CAL FIRE

  • Myth #3: Total suppression is the safest, least destructive policy.

This assumes all fires are equally destructive. The problem with this is that bigger, more intense fires tend to do much more, longer-lasting damage than smaller, less intense fires. To continue our avalanche metaphor, it is generally safer and less harmful to initiate many small avalanches than it is to wait for the big, destructive one.

  • Myth #4: Controlled burns are inherently risky.

It’s important to acknowledge the kernel of truth behind this myth. There have been catastrophic wildfires that started their lives as controlled burns that spun out of control. However, multiple analyses have found that 97% to more than 99% of controlled burns stay within their predetermined areas. When controlled burns do escape their planned areas, there is a subsequent investigation, often resulting in a change in practices to prevent it from happening again.


The good news is that the misconceptions and resistance to controlled burning are fading away. During the 1960s, a series of scientific studies began to shed light on the ecological benefits of fire. By the 1970s, the Forest Service shifted its policy to allow some fires to burn. By the late 1970s, the Forest Service had adopted its first policies for the prescribed use of intentional fire. Now, the U.S. Forest Service estimates that 4,000-5,000 prescribed burns are completed annually by federal land management authorities.

The bad news is that a century of fire suppression policies has dramatically increased fuel loads, making controlled burns and other thinning tactics more needed than ever. Idaho Senator John Risch said in 2021, “Idaho is 40% forestland…and decades of insufficient forest management have left millions of these acres vulnerable to the kinds of catastrophic fires that have increasingly become the norm in the West.”

Why controlled burning is still underutilized

Despite gaining broader acceptance among land managers, prescribed fire has continued to be vastly underutilized by federal land managers in the U.S. In fact, a study out of the University of Idaho found that the use of controlled burns in the American West remained stable or even decreased from 1998 to 2018.

There are several challenges still limiting the use of prescribed fire, including:

...some of the challenges of implementation of Prescribed Fire include regulatory and legal constraints, limited funding and resources, public perception and acceptance, and risk aversion... Achieving resiliency will take true partnerships between agencies, private organizations, and indigenous communities.

Jon Fitch | Prescribed Fire Coordinator | CAL FIRE

  • Regulatory challenges: As Jon Fitch from CAL FIRE points out, regulatory and legal constraints are among the top hurdles. For example, NPR reported that Colorado requires firefighters to complete multi-part plans, and the rules they must follow differ across each of the state’s 64 counties.
  • Anti-fire culture: A paper out of the University of California, Davis,points out that there is often no incentive for firefighters to use prescribed fire. In fact, those who use the tool may be taking a career risk. The most recent example is that of a burn boss who was arrested by a sheriff in rural Oregon and is now facing criminal charges for "reckless burning." The charge came after a fire on federal land spread to private land and burned 20 acres.

The lack of social and political license to use beneficial fire has had a tremendous impact on wildland firefighters who are resigning in record numbers and taking jobs with other agencies and private companies. A loss of just one person with 15 years of experience is a tremendous loss of institutional knowledge to the public, which could have been used to support the use of more beneficial fire.

Kelly Martin | Owner & President | Lasair Fire Consulting Group, LLC

  • Limited funding: As the researchers from UC-Davis point out, prescribed fire is much more cost-effective than wildfire suppression. But money goes toward suppression efforts first, which often leaves little dedicated funding left over for controlled burn projects.

In the absence of societal demand for proactive use of fire, we lack the political ability to make proven, substantial investments that we know will protect life, property, and the health of landscapes... Emergency response funding and resources, on the other hand, are viewed by the public as unlimited, hoping this mindset will spare their homes and communities during the next big wildfire, which we all know is a thin veil of hope.

Kelly Martin | Owner & President | Lasair Fire Consulting Group, LLC

  • Lack of collaboration: Also noted by the UC-Davis researchers, disconnects between different federal and state agencies and neighboring private and non-profit landowners can cause opportunities for cooperation to go unrealized. Those disconnects can take many forms, including differing protocols and the absence of a shared, scientifically grounded understanding of wildfire risks.

Why collaboration is a foundational challenge

Obviously, a single blog post is not going to solve the varied and complex challenges that have stood in the way of fully realizing the benefits of prescribed fire. But, it is worth noting the important role that collaboration can play in mitigating some of the other challenges.

To see the point, consider the challenge of limited funding. By sharing knowledge and information across different federal, state, and private organizations, it’s possible to magnify the beneficial impact of scarce resources. For example, instead of doing a series of isolated controlled burns with limited impacts in each jurisdiction, stakeholders in neighboring territories could collaboratively adjust the sequence and timing of their burn projects to deliver a much larger collective benefit.

More broadly, by working together to share knowledge and resources across physical and administrative boundaries, we can do even more to increase the effectiveness and minimize the risks of controlled burns. And safer, more successful controlled burns can only help with mitigating public fears, regulatory challenges, and the anti-fire culture that have inhibited the use of prescribed fire.

Toward a more collaborative approach to controlled burning

Even if we grant that improved collaboration may help to break down the barriers that stand in the way of the wider application of effective controlled burning, there is still the question of how we achieve such collaboration. It’s important not to underestimate the deep fissures that stand in the way of better collaboration.

The reality is that most public and private organizations are set up as individual entities with their own hierarchical structures. This works well for delineating responsibilities within the hierarchy. It works less effectively when collections of these organizations share a common risk, like wildfire, and need to coordinate action beyond the individual organization.

Although effective wildfire resilience may be a team sport, that sport is being played mostly by a collection of individual entities that are internally focused — because that's what their hierarchical structures incentivize.

Ben Twomey | Global Segment Leader - Wildfire | AEM

Certainly, some coordination already exists, but only to a limited extent. It typically involves periodic meetings, where each party brings and discusses their own independently generated risk maps that rely on different methods.

What’s needed is something deeper – a shared collective understanding of what’s happening in the world and what other stakeholders are doing. Meaningful and ongoing coordination and collaboration need the foundation of a common and scientifically grounded understanding of wildfire risk, and an ability for the risk owners to maintain easy ongoing discussions, so they can continually coordinate with each other about priorities, activities, and their combined effects.

What I’m talking about is a concept that we at AEM call “collaborative resilience.” I recently gave a podcast interview on exactly this topic. The discussion focused on improving collaboration across the event lifecycle to help communities and organizations improve their resilience against growing natural hazard risks.

The good news is that we already have the technology to support that collective understanding. With the launch of AEM Elements™ 360, it is now possible for diverse stakeholders to systematically share information and insights about a wide variety of natural hazard risks directly with each other, enabling a collective understanding and foundation for action.

What lies at the heart of Elements 360 is the ability to ingest information from any number of different environmental data sources. So, the client can build up a much more comprehensive view of the situation that encompasses what other stakeholders are seeing and doing.

Conclusion: A path forward for controlled burning

In conclusion, we need broader use of controlled burns to ensure the health and resilience of our landscapes for generations to come. And the road to widespread acceptance and effective use of controlled burning is paved with education, dispelling myths, and fostering collaboration. By addressing misconceptions and understanding the barriers to its use, we can better appreciate the nuances and immense benefits this practice offers. Collaboration among stakeholders—including government agencies, local communities, and private organizations—emerges as the foundation for success.

110654571351, 79630775190,132467216934

Subscribe for updates