Wildfire in Yosemite National Park highlights the benefits of prescribed burning
With temperatures reaching record highs across the UK, wildfires have been breaking out all over the UK; almost everywhere, from moorland to urban city centres. But it isn’t just in the UK that wildfires have been more prevalent than usual.
In California, a wildfire in Yosemite National Park – a fire which has been named the Washburn Fire – has burned more than 2,720 acres, forcing evacuations in the town of Wawona, closing sections of the park, and sparking concerns about the famous giant sequoias, some of which are 3,000 feet tall.
But a recent article in The Guardian has highlighted the fact that, as long as the wildfire can be stopped from damaging the sequoias (which appears likely; firefighters have the fire 50% under control and have installed sprinklers around the bases of the trees), it may actually benefit the park in the long term.
“Recently there has been this association between fire and bad outcomes because the fires have been absurdly, apocalyptically intense,” Daniel Swain, a climate scientist at the Institute of the Environment and Sustainability at the University of California, Los Angeles was quoted as saying. “This fire – so far – has not been a catastrophe.”
The article explains how historically, “indigenous nations ignited cultural fires to cull overgrowth from the land and help clear space for new trees to thrive. But over the last century, white settlers instituted fire suppression as a practice. As the forests became more crowded, the climate crisis turned up the dial, creating a new kind of fire – one that threatened even the most resilient trees adapted for flames.”
This comment in particular proved interesting: “fuelled by a combination of poor land management and intensifying conditions, extreme fire intensity has devastated sequoia groves”
What the article is highlighting is that controlled or prescribed burning – as is also practiced the UK on heather moorland for similar wildfire prevention reasons – plays a huge part in controlling the spread of wildfires, and ensuring that when or if they do break out, the fuel load is minimal, preventing them from burning so furiously. Controlled burns are also used to create fire breaks, stopping wildfires in their tracks. "Poor land management" does indeed involve refusing to accept that prescribed burns can help prevent wildfires.
Stanley Bercovitz, a public information officer with the interagency team managing the fire response is quoted as saying: “We have stopped fires for the last 100 years – and we are paying the price…. We have created a nightmare situation.”
Kelly Martin, former chief of fire and aviation management at Yosemite, said: “We have learned a lot in the five decades since we started suppressing fire – the unintended consequences of fire suppression. The problem is we didn’t recognize the dangers that were lurking outside the grove and the potential for large wildfires to hit these groves from the outside”.
It seems slightly ironic that a British newspaper is happy to report the benefits of prescribed burning when carried out in the US, but less likely to report similar situations here in the UK. At the moment we are aware of serious wildfires on RSPB ‘managed’ land, where no prescribed burning is carried out. By contrast, other fires on managed moorland have in most cases been brought swiftly under control due to a combination of good land management, including the use of controlled burns to reduce fuel load and create fire breaks, and the quick reactions of gamekeepers on the ground, working to put out wildfires. The RSPB do not appear to be responding in the same way.
Kelly Martin, formerly chief of fire at Yosemite, goes on to say that “over the decades the park has been doing prescribed burns in the Mariposa Grove that now has protected the grove and allowed the firefighters a safer, more effective place to control this wildfire. That’s what we are seeing play out now.” The article highlights that the work Martin did in Mariposa Grove “not only helped reduce risk, but also spurred sequoia regeneration, ensuring that seeds could better reach the soil.”
Isn’t it time that people woke up and smelt the coffee?