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Wildfire Ecology Part 3: Lighting Fires to Fight Fires

Lighting a burn out with a drip torchI’ve lived in the mountains of far northern California for over 15 years, yet the last few summers have been filled with smoke.  My property has been threatened by three wildfires in the past four years, one of which was human caused (PGE) and burned across my property. I am not a trained firefighter, but as a layman (woman) I’ve learned a lot about firefighting techniques. Of particular concern to residents is the use of burn outs: fires lit by firefighters to control fires. It seems counterintuitive to light fires while fighting them, and it is hard to see fires grow by thousands of acres due to burn outs.

There are actually two techniques of lighting fires used by the firefighters: back burning and burn outs.  Back burning is a defensive technique used to protect structures. During the 2004 Sims Fire, crews back burned the meadow around our house to create blackened space where the fire would not spread.  Burn outs differ from back burning, in that they are an offensive technique.

The Hell’s Half Fire, the fire that forced a mandatory evacuation on my home, has burned 15,146 acres, according to Inciweb. At least 1/3 of that acreage is from burn out operations. It is hard to see my neighborhood intentionally lit by hand crews and aerial ignition, and one can’t help but wonder if the fire would have spread as far as the burn out operations naturally. So why burn out?

According to the Lime Complex information:

A burn out operation is a fire suppression tactic utilized to remove unburned fuel (grasses, leaves, needles, brush, etc.) located between an advancing fire and an established constructed fire line or natural barrier. Weather conditions, slope, the amount of accumulated fuels, time of day, resource availability, and firefighter safety are all considered prior to initiating a burn out operation.

The intent of a burn out operation is for the fire to slowly move from the established control line toward the advancing main fire to effectively remove the unburned fuel. This tactic widens the established control line, reduces the potential fire intensity and can make containment and control more successful for firefighters.

One of the controversies surrounding burn outs is the location of containment lines, as incident commanders chose ridge tops and roads far from the direct fire for containment lines, and thus burn out the interiors from these lines to the actual fire.  Instead of doing a direct attack and placing lines with hotshot crews near the fires, the lack of resources has been used as an excuse to light the fires over vast amounts of acreage.

The use of aerial ignition is a technique that particularly bothers me. Ping pong balls packed with fertilizer and ignited with radiator fluid are dropped every several hundred feet from a helicopter. The purpose is to create a low intensity fire across a vast area that would be too difficult to light by hand, thus preventing crowning in treetops that kills timber.  This sounds somewhat logical, except for when you factor in this is fire you are playing with and the unpredictability of mountain winds. I’ve seen burn outs get out of control where helicopters were called in to dump water and cool the fire.  It is not an exact science, no matter how confident fire teams are.

Many of these fires are occurring in virgin timber stands, and I appreciate efforts to protect them; however, past experience tells me that this also opens up the stands for salvage logging.  Fortunately, environmental groups such as the Environmental Protection Information Center (EPIC), have stopped such salvage sales in the past, but with the shear magnitude of the 2008 California Wildfires (GeoMAC provides an extensive map of the California Wildfires that can be integrated with Google Earth), it may be difficult for groups to monitor them all.

My first experience with fire was over 14 years ago. Smoke jumpers were dropped from airplanes, and the fire was contained quickly. The current magnitude of the California Firestorm has created an excessive amount of burn out operations, due to the shortage of hotshot crews that could burn off of hand lines in steep terrain.  Often, the worse scars left upon the land after a fire is from burn out operations.  As one local environmentalist explained:

I do see the value in a proper “burnout” situation, but I think the technique is over used, abused and there are so many unknown variables especially in the wind and the weather that they are often ill timed and even the most experienced are still learning about how the fire and the weather will react to the forest around your home. I think more burnouts done in the fall and spring like the native people did around their homes and more money going into fire prevention and fuels management instead of wild land fire fighting would be a good change in the fire fighting strategy.

Does it really make sense to create bigger fires by burning out thousands of acres?

Image: Inciweb

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4 comments
  1. Jennifer Lance

    Dan, I agree. Somehow criticizing the forest service means you don’t care about firefighter safety, like criticizing the war means you don’t support the troops.

    And what is up with using explosives to down trees on the Miner’s fire along the Lucky Trail that are too big for chainsaws? I didn’t think there were trees too big for chainsaws. These aren’t redwoods!

  2. Dan Adair

    I’m a little tired of the notion that we are somehow being disloyal to the fire fighters by criticizing the let it burn policy. All of us who live in Trinity County have friends, neighbors and relatives who are on those fire lines.

    Our reality, though, is that for over six weeks we have been living in a cloud of smoke so thick that we can’t work outside without respirator masks. Our livestock are sick, old people are dropping like flies, and children are having asthma attacks.

    The forest service recently announced that they expect to, “have these fires out,” in October. Translated, that means, “when it starts to rain.” In other words, let it burn.

    It’s fine for Mr. Smith to sit in another county and lecture us about forestry techniques. To us, it’s not an academic matter – it’s the place we love and the place we live. We have every right to question this insane policy.

  3. Jennifer Lance

    Chris Smith, thank you for your comments, and I really appreciate your wife’s efforts on the Lime fires, which are near my friends’ homes. These fires did start off slow and low burning, and the line near my home was a direct line that was defended by the crews with minimal burn outs. I applaud their work, and I am saddened by the two recent deaths in Trinity County of firefighters. I talked with the Incident Commander, and he is the one that told me they could not do a direct attack because of limited resources, i.e. lack of hot shot crews. I am ever so thankful that our fire will be contained today, where my neighbors are not so lucky, and yes, this is largely due to the massive burn out. As you mention, your wife’s crew had to run from the backfire, and yesterday there was a large smoke column from the Miner’s Fire in the Lime Complex. I want the firefighters to be safe!

  4. Chris Smith

    As a lay person,Jennifer Lance has a lot more to learn. All decisions about how to fight wildfires are based on SAFETY. The incident commanders make decisions on how and where to safely fight the fire based on terrain, resources, fuel load, fuel moisture, weather, etc. Building an optimally placed, safe, fireline can sometimes require burning seemingly “vast amounts of acreage”. Digging hand or dozer line and backfiring into the wind, and oncoming fire, to remove the fuel as safely as possible is the best option. Direct attack is only useful on slow, low burning fires such as small spot fires, not large fast burning fires which are so intensely hot that it is difficult to even approach them. Aerial drops are only used to slow, not stop, fires to buy time for firefighters building fireline, and in extreme fire situations can even seem to fan the fire. I agree that proscibed burning of the fuel load during the wet season is a great idea which I believe because the ecology require periodic burns, but just try to get the politicians to take time from buying your vote with your own money and get them to spend some on the Forest Fire Services in the wet season (just not politically sexy enough). Forget regiments of hotshot crews for the same reason. Most firefighter in the forest fire services of most states are paid barely above minimum wage. If you are wondering how I know all this, I was born and raised in S. Cal and have seen these fires all my life, I am not a lay person, and my wife is currently working on a fireline in the Lime Complex. They were backfiring “vast amounts of acreage” and defending the fireline when the weather changed, the fire picked up speed like a runaway train, and her crew forced to get out of the way by running off of the mountain. Jennifer needs to try a little first hand experience before she starts commenting about what others are doing.

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