Prescribed Burns Take A Lot Longer Than You'd Think

Nov 22, 2019

With this past winter storm, prescribed burn season is ramping up in Northern Nevada and throughout the Sierra. 

With the rise of catastrophic wildfire over the past few years, many are pushing for more prescribed burns at a faster pace to dampen the impact of wildfires on our communities, but the process to get the permitting process done is arduous.

For more details, KUNR’s Bree Zender spoke with Steve Howell from the Humboldt Toiyabe National Forest.

ZENDER: How long does [the assessment for prescribed burns] take?

HOWELL: You know, from planning those efforts, identifying where we might burn, to when we get done implementing, it can take anywhere from two to five years to complete.

ZENDER: Yeah, I think that surprises a lot of people.

HOWELL: Yeah, two to five years, and when we know that our planning efforts are done, and we are actually out trying to implement the burn, we are, at least one year in advance, trying to make sure that we are getting the site prepared. And, secondly, we have to write a burn plan for those sites. And those burn plans--they’re lengthy. There’s a process to them, and it gives us our prescriptions, it gives us people that we need onsite. And those plans have to be reviewed. They’re reviewed at a local level, but they’re also reviewed by other technical reviewers to make sure everything in that plan is sound before we go out.

ZENDER: I know with the rampant, intense wildfires that we’ve had over the past few years, there’s [a] stronger push for faster prescribed burns, or more of them. Have you seen that play out within your national forest?

HOWELL: You know, prescribed burns--it’s always been the tool that we look at first because, for one, it’s probably less impact to the ground than if we were to go in and hand thin, or pile burn, or take machinery in there. It’s probably our most beneficial. And, secondly, we have [a] budget, and that determines how much burning we can do. But, overall, there is this [idea] that we should get more fire on the landscape, and I think the Forest Service is doing that, and other agencies are doing that.

It just depends on where--where you’re located. And then, you know, some places you might not be able to do as much fire as other places. I would say that, overall, there’s been a need to get more fire onto the landscape so that if we do have those wildfires in the summer or fall, that we have those areas now that we’ve treated to be able to make the fire less intense.

ZENDER: Has it been a struggle to find workers to do that?

HOWELL: So, prescribed burning, [you] have to have qualified people in order to do the burn. And the firefighters that do it, they’re well-qualified, and there is a need for every burn [for] resources. When you go burn, you don’t really know when you’re going to be able to burn, and within a 48-hour period, [trying] to find those people may be tough--the equipment and the people. And, so, it may be tough within 48 hours turnaround, or what it is...maybe 72 [hours], to be able to find resources to get to your burn to be able to do it, and pull it off the way you’re supposed to.

ZENDER: Is there anything you want people to know about prescribed burns?

HOWELL: You know, people do [not] like seeing the smoke, but with prescribed burning, it’s short term. The effects of what we are doing is short term, and then it goes away, so if we are prescribed burning, and there is smoke in the air, it may be short-lived. You know, a couple days. Compared to a wildfire, if it came through there, it could be there for weeks on end. It’s probably our most beneficial tool to be able to create fuel breaks on the national forest.