Most of our mothers cautioned us against ‘fighting fire with fire.’ But in the case of forest management and reducing wildfire risk, we should literally fight fire with fire. In reality, prescribed burns—applying controlled, low-intensity fire to a landscape to clear out brush and other hazardous fuels—are an important tool in preventing catastrophic wildfires.
While Montanans are all too familiar with bad fires that destroy homes, watersheds, and wildlife habitat, we are less aware of good fires that can prevent bad fires. As Darryl Jones, the forest protection chief of the South Carolina Forestry Commission, described it, the goal of a prescribed fire is to “burn an area purposely before it can burn accidentally.” Landowners and managers in southeastern states have a long and continuous track record of applying prescribed fire to forests, and there are lessons we can learn from them here in the West. By removing the dangerous accumulations of pine needles, briars, shrubs, and other fuels that naturally build up, prescribed burns play an important role in fixing America’s forests.
Wildfires have become much more destructive over the past two decades, now costing billions in economic damages annually, most of it in the American West. There is growing recognition among conservationists, private landowners, academic researchers, and government officials of the need to proactively reduce wildfire risk through fuel treatments in the region. Prescribed burns, especially done in conjunction with mechanical treatments, proved their value as a proactive tool in controlling wildfires in Montana this summer.
One major obstacle to prescribed burning is the fact that any fire can, of course, be dangerous. Escaped burns clearly can cause great destruction, but smoke from a prescribed burn can harm others as well—damages that a burner might be liable for.
So with prescribed fire being an important tool in forest management but also bringing risks, the question is: How do we do more prescribed burns in a safe, responsible manner?
To start, prescribed burns should be conducted only during favorable weather conditions. Low wind, damp or humid conditions, cool temperatures and healthy air quality all help reduce the risk of a burn escaping or releasing prohibitively damaging pollution. In Montana, for example, spring and fall are usually the best times for prescribed burns, whereas summer is too dry, and the winter has unhealthy air conditions.
In advance of a burn, Montana requires prescribed burners to get permits from county fire authorities and, sometimes, the Montana Department of Environmental Quality, depending on the season and conditions. In addition to needing a permit, prescribed burners are liable if a fire escapes and causes damages. Though an escaped burn is exceedingly rare—fewer than 1 percent of prescribed burns escape—burners are held responsible if it happens.
While all burners are concerned about liability, it’s especially burdensome for private forest owners. Nearly 30 percent of Montana forests are privately owned, and properly managing these forestlands, including with prescribed burns, is important to help reduce statewide wildfire risk. Most private owners know this and want to do their part, but confusing liability standards make it difficult.
Prescribed burn liability standards in Montana are currently unclear, with no set law. Montana should certainly hold grossly negligent prescribed burners accountable for damages done to others from escaped burns, but we also need to find ways to reduce the burdens on private forest owners who want to practice good management through careful use of prescribed fire. Montana could, for example, relax liability standards to gross or simple negligence for prescribed burners who have gone through a training program. Other states, such as Colorado and Washington, already do this for certified prescribed burners. Such an approach encourages prescribed burners to receive formal training and conduct more burns, which helps lower fire risk generally.
Another idea to reduce risk while still protecting others who might be harmed from escaped burns is to establish a catastrophe bond. Private supporters, state agencies, and federal partners who recognize the importance of prescribed burns for forest management would back a bond that financially covers damages from escaped fires. Though escaped burns are exceptionally rare, a catastrophe bond would help protect neighbors who potentially suffer losses from an escape while also reducing the burden of conducting prescribed burns.
Prescribed burns are a necessary element for forest management and reducing wildfire risk. By finding approaches that support responsible burners while ensuring neighbors would be protected from damages, Montana can promote the safe and responsible use of prescribed burns.