While most of our friends and neighbors have shared their enthusiasm for the integration of “Good Fire” into Pepperwood’s stewardship, some have also expressed concerns – especially about impacts on local air quality. Here are some resources to answer questions we’ve heard from during this year’s prescribed fire season.
Why do we use low intensity burns as a stewardship tool in California? Fire ecologists and emergency responders maintain that prescribed fire is one of the most effective stewardship practices for meeting land condition goals and objectives and has a long and rich tradition rooted in Indigenous and local ecological knowledge. Scientific literature by the EPA and other public research agencies has repeatedly reported that prescribed fire is often the most effective means to reduce fuels and wildfire hazard to restore sustainable ecological functioning to fire-adapted ecosystems in the U.S. following a century of fire suppression. In collaboration with CAL FIRE and our Native Advisory Council, Pepperwood is using tested “beneficial fire” practices to reduce wildfire hazards, create defensible spaces, enhance our water supply, and improve the biodiversity of our lands, including the regeneration of traditional foods and medicines.
What kind of standards do intentional burns, including prescribed, cultural or “good fire” burns need to meet? These activities are highly regulated: they must meet CALFIRE standards for planning and safety, environmental standards set by the CA Environmental Quality Act, and public health/air quality standards set by CA Air Resources Board. You can learn more here.
Can’t we just use mechanical thinning practices to mitigate wildfire risk? We have found that the most effective method is to combine forest thinning practices with prescribed burning. Prior to the 2017 fires we were using just mechanical thinning, but the resulting slash (products of forest thinning) on the ground appeared to result in wildfire impacts in the near term almost as severe as where no treatment occurred at all. Currently part of the site preparation work that goes into our prescribed or cultural burns includes thinning, followed by pile burning and invasive species management.
How are air quality impacts of prescribed fire managed? Prescribed burning takes place after careful planning and under controlled conditions, and this planning includes clearances from state and local air quality management agencies. Controlling where the smoke will go is an important part of every prescribed burn. If not carefully managed, the smoke – a mixture of toxic particles and gases – can be a nuisance to residents and businesses, and it can adversely impact community health. Smoke can contribute to levels of pollution that exceed health protective air quality standards. To minimize smoke impacts and protect public health, burners and air regulators work together to conduct burning under favorable atmospheric conditions. Learn more here.
Can prescribed burning reduce smoke impacts and greenhouse gas emissions from future wildfires? A series of case studies recently conducted by the USEPA examine the tradeoffs of emissions from prescribed fire treatments versus reductions in smoke emitted from subsequent wildfires in treated zones. These studies identified up to 40% reductions in wildfire smoke from treated areas, reductions that will ultimately help the State of CA meet targeted reductions in CO2 emissions. You can read the full study here.
What about the wild animals? How does our burning impact them? California’s wildlife have evolved alongside the cycles of wildfire and intentionally-set cultural burns. They rely on periodic fire to regenerate their food resources. Given the “slow and low” nature of prescribed burns, animals can escape the fire. They have a lot of adaptations to stay safe, like burrowing underground, occupying rodent burrows, or leaving the burn area to seek shelter.
How can I stay informed about when prescribed fire smoke may be an issue in our area and what are the response measures I can take? Smoke from prescription burning or wildfires throughout the region can have far-reaching effects. The Watch Duty app now hosts information on when and where prescribed burns are planned information in addition to active wildfire data. The CA Air Resources Board hosts a range of tools to assess air quality conditions in your area and defines specific measures you can take to address risks to your health. Learn more here.
Is there potential for Pepperwood’s Sentinel Site to help measure local air quality in the future? Yes! Pepperwood has just partnered with EPA’s Community Air Quality program to explore how we can add air quality monitoring equipment to our Sentinel Site to provide more detailed air quality data.