I’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?