Why officials are fighting fire with fire in Utah

Local News

(ABC4) – There have been 126 wildfires in Utah this fire season alone, far surpassing the five-year average for this time of year, according to Utah Fire Info.

And Uinta-Wasatch-Cache National Forest fire personnel are planning another one, which will burn 30 acres of the Ponderosa Restoration Project in Summit County, according to KJ Pollock from Uinta-Wasatch-Cache National Forests.

Though it may seem counterintuitive, officials sometimes use fires in efforts to prevent catastrophic wildfires from starting and spreading.

The United States Department of Agriculture defines a prescribed fire as “the planned application of low to moderate intensity fire to the landscape by fire and fuel specialists to meet land management objectives.”

Prescribed fires serve two purposes: to increase the overall health of a forest and to protect communities from large wildfires. This is done by destroying ‘fuel’ in the form of vegetation that wildfires can feed on, according to information from the Department.

“Landscapes that have been treated by prescribed fire slow the spread of a wildfire, giving firefighters a safer place to engage and be successful in suppression operations.”

How do officials know where to start these prescribed fires?

“There is a substantial amount of planning associated with all prescribed burns,” Suzanne Tracy, Assistant Director of Strategic Communications, tells ABC4. “Within the past five years, Utah has accomplished 151,570 acres of prescribed fire. We average about 30,314 acres a year on the five forests in Utah.”

The five forests include Ashley, Dixie. Fish Lake Manti-La Sal and Uintah-Wasatch-Cache national forests.

In order for a prescribed fire project to happen, it has to go through the National Environmental Policy Act (NEPA) process. Under this act, federal agencies are required to disclose information about the project, include the public in decision-making processes, and follow environmental laws and regulations.

“This includes completing an environmental analysis, which helps land managers identify the need and location for specific restoration treatments including prescribed burns,” Tracy explains.

Once the project is assessed, officials will identify treatment units, treat the vegetation, review and approve the burn plan, obtain a smoke permit, and reach out to the public about the prescribed fire.

And though intentionally starting fires may seem contradictory to helping wildlife, “many prescribed burns are planned with the intent to improve wildlife habitat,” Tracy says.

“This is also considered in the planning process. Using prescribed fire as a restoration tool provides benefits to many resources, such as wildlife habitat, native plants, and watershed health, especially when compared to the effects of an uncharacteristically severe wildfire.”

Types of prescribed fires

There are three different types of prescribed fires that are intended to mimic naturally occurring wildfires: pile burning, understory burning, and broadcast burning, according to the United States Department of Agriculture.

Pile burning is the most common type of prescribed fire used. According to Kaitlyn Webb from Utah Wildfire Info, dense growth of vegetation can make forests unhealthy because the plants are all competing for resources. In this case, thinning out a forest can restore its health.

“Fire is a natural part of the life cycle,” Webb says.

Pile burning occurs when the vegetation that was cut out to thin the forest is placed in piles, allowed to dry out, and is burned. This reduces the amount of vegetation that could potentially catch on fire and help a wildfire to spread.

Understory burning occurs when officials ignite a fire of low to moderate intensity low to the ground under the forest canopy to get rid of things like grass, shrubs, and fallen branches. This helps native vegetation to flourish.

The third method is broadcast burning, which is similar to understory burning, except it happens in fields or grasslands. The burns that occur in the vegetation allow different plant species to grow and flourish, promoting diversity in the ecosystem.

For more information about prescribed burns, see information from the United States Department of Agriculture.

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