How to Save a Forest by Burning It
Prescribed burns, an age-old practice that rids forests of the small trees, brush and other matter than can fuel wildfires, are getting a 21st-century upgrade.
With climate change parching the land and increasing wildfire hazards, scientists are beginning to use cutting-edge technology and computer modeling to make controlled, low-intensity burns safer, more effective and less disruptive to nearby communities.
“Fire has made us civilized, but we still don’t understand it fully,” said Tirtha Banerjee of the University of California, Irvine, as he watched a tall heap of dead tree limbs go up in flames.
As useful as prescribed burns can be for maintaining forests, they are tough to carry out — costly, labor-intensive, contingent on narrowing windows of favorable weather.
Scientists think we can do better. Several teams recently converged at Blodgett Forest Research Station northeast of Sacramento, an area thick with towering Ponderosa pine, Douglas fir and incense cedar. A planned burn at Blodgett was a precious opportunity to collect data in the field, and the researchers packed carloads of gear including GoPro cameras, drone-mounted sensors for mapping the terrain in minute detail, a sonic anemometer for measuring wind and an assortment of machines that collected airborne particles.
Global warming has brought more of the extremely hot and dry conditions that can turn wildfires into deadly catastrophes. Blazes as ferocious as last year’s Dixie Fire, which burned through nearly a million acres of Northern California, weren’t part of the picture for scientists half a century ago, when the Forest Service and other agencies first developed their mathematical models for predicting how wildfires spread. (Raymond Zhong)