Why Climate Change Makes It Harder to Fight Fire With Fire

“As the wildfire seasons get longer, those folks are gone for longer,” said Dan Porter, the forest program director in California at The Nature Conservancy, an environmental nonprofit. “When they come back, we may say, ‘Hey, would you like to go do a prescribed fire?’ Well, they’ve been out cutting line for four months and breathing smoke for four months. They need to go see their family and take a break.”

Ms. Quinn-Davidson of the University of California Cooperative Extension has hosted courses as part of a new program to train more people to lead prescribed fires in their communities. But with so many of California’s catastrophic wildfires taking place on federal land, only bigger policy changes and large-scale prescribed fire projects can stop further harm to the broader landscape, she said.

Last summer, the Forest Service’s chief, Randy Moore, restricted the use of prescribed fire on agency lands to make sure resources were available to fight wildfires. He also ordered a pause on allowing backcountry fires to burn if they provided ecological benefits and didn’t threaten homes or infrastructure.

The halt was temporary, but it was enough to make some ecologists fear that officials’ recent championing of fire could still go into reverse. If the goal is to return the land to an older ecological state, one in which frequent natural fires kept forests vibrant and resilient, then the scale of the task is staggering.

California is aiming to use prescribed fire on 300,000 acres of land annually by 2025. Far more of the state burned each year in centuries past, before intensive modern settlements transformed the landscape, scientists have estimated. Smoke and haze fouled the skies through much of summer and fall.

It may not be practical or desirable to go back to that world in its entirety. Still, as more human activity spreads into onetime wilderness, societies will have to learn to accept fire in one form or another, said Heath D. Starns, a fire researcher at Texas A&M University and president of the Prescribed Burn Alliance of Texas.

“It’s a process that really needs to occur, ecologically,” Dr. Starns said. “And our best option is to live with it, but to determine when, where and under what conditions fires happen.”

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