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Proposed smoke management framework allows larger prescribed fires with fewer health risks

Paul Meznarich
Pacific Southwest Research Station
September 1, 2017 at 2:00pm

Before a single drip torch is lit or blade of grass ignited, fire management staff must consult with state or local air quality control officials to negotiate a fine balance between using fire as a restorative tool on the landscape with concerns about smoke and its impacts on public health.

Forest Service employee manages prescribed fire

Forest Service researchers have proposed a new way of applying existing fire and weather modeling software to allow more acres to be treated with prescribed fires while minimizing smoke effects on downwind communities. Photo credit Eldorado National Forest.

For years, these determinations have been made using rudimentary scales equating acreage burned to smoke produced, regardless of vegetation type or density, changing daily weather, or demographics of downwind communities. In some states or jurisdictions, the ability to treat acres with fire comes down to economics. Often air quality fees are assessed purely based upon the amount of acreage to be burned, regardless of the quantity of smoke likely to be emitted or the number of people potentially at risk.

At a time when land managers are becoming increasingly aware of the importance and value of reintroducing fire to the landscape, such one-size-fits-all smoke management policies can delay or reduce the use of fire under favorable conditions, increasing the chances of future fires burning under more hazardous scenarios.

Forest Service researchers have proposed a framework that takes advantage of smoke and air quality modeling software, as well as demographic information already used by fire, air quality, and public health managers, to better predict smoke effects.

Jonathan Long, a Forest Service research ecologist, is lead author of the research paper “Aligning Smoke Management with Ecological and Public Health Goals” published earlier this year in the Journal of Forestry. He describes how this framework can be used to balance public health goals with landscape resiliency to wildfire.

“This framework hones our thinking about how to quantify smoke impacts from fires on communities so we can better evaluate the tradeoffs between having fires under favorable conditions versus poorly controlled fires,” he said. “It features tools already in use… to help managers and regulators implement proactive fire strategies that align public health and forest restoration objectives.”

The methodology takes into consideration the type and amount of vegetation within a proposed burn area, atmospheric conditions that could better disperse smoke or direct it away from populated areas, as well as the size and potential vulnerability of downwind populations to smoke effects.

For the next three years, researchers are teaming up with fire and resource managers on the Eldorado National Forest in California’s Sierra Nevada foothills to apply the framework across a series of prescribed burns. When completed, Forest Service staff will have treated 8,000 acres.

“It’s pretty novel for a burning project of that size,” said Becky Estes, a Pacific Southwest Regional ecologist who helped plan the project. “This research gives us quantifiable evidence to bring to the community when talking about the benefits of landscape-scale burning and how it can be managed in a way to minimize impacts on them.”  

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