Prescribed fires, also known as controlled burns, refer to the planned and controlled use of fire by a team of experts under specific conditions of temperature, wind, and humidity. Prescribed fire is used to help restore ecosystems that depend on fire, reduce the risk of out-of-control wildfire, and increase community and firefighter safety.
Wildfires, on the other hand, are unplanned fires ignited by careless people or lightning, under whatever weather conditions are present when they start. Wildfires differ from prescribed fire in terms of management strategies, cost, effects on the ecosystem, threats posed to communities and firefighters, and the intensity and duration of smoke.
Prescribed fire, when used strategically and repeatedly across larger areas, helps sustain healthy forest ecosystems, reduces the risk of out-of-control fires, reduces the severity of future wildfires when they do occur, and keeps our communities and firefighters safer.
Why is prescribed fire essential to make our forests healthier and communities safer?
Wildfire was here before us. For millennia, our region was shaped by fire, and our mid- and lower- elevation forests, such as the ponderosa pine and mixed-conifer forests across Central Oregon were maintained by frequent, low-intensity fires, every ten to twenty-five years.
These natural fires sustained a forest of fire-dependent trees and plants, maintained wildlife habitat for a diversity of species, recycled nutrients, and sustained a healthy forest ecosystem. Beginning with the settlement of Europeans in Central Oregon, and increasing during the past 100 years these, these frequent, low-intensity fires were steadily removed from the ecosystem in the name of protecting timber and people. However, science over the last several decades has shed a great deal of light on the essential role that these natural, low-intensity fires play in a fire-dependent forest like ours in Central Oregon.
Want to learn more? Check out Dr. Paul Hessburg’s Ted Talk on living with wildfires.
By using a combination of forest thinning and prescribed fire, we are finding a safe and controlled way to reintroduce fire and restore a more natural and healthy fire-dependent ecosystem in Central Oregon’s lower elevation dry forests.
And not only that. Prescribed fire, in addition to sustaining healthy forest ecosystems, significantly reduces the risk of out-of-control wildfires; the kind that burn thousands (even tens of thousands) of acres, create hazardous air for weeks at a time, and mean real danger for our communities, and firefighters.
Like living in a tornado alley, earthquake zone, or hurricane territory, living in Central Oregon comes with a natural hazard: wildland forest fires. Fortunately, there is something we can do to live more compatibly in and around fire-dependent forests. Science has shown that prescribed fire, when used strategically and repeatedly across larger areas (such as around our communities), is the best tool available to reduce wildfire risk, as well as the severity of future wildfires when they do occur.