Prescribed Fire and Forest Health

In the southwest, plants and animals have evolved with fire as a natural part of the ecosystem. For thousands of years, small lightning-caused fires have moved through southwestern forests burning along the ground, thinning out smaller pines, consuming accumulated needles, and leaving behind nutrient-rich ash that stimulated the growth of grasses and wildflowers. This continuous cycle of fire and regeneration continued unchecked until civilization began to encroach upon the forests. Fire was viewed as a threat to early settlements in the west, and all fires were aggressively suppressed.

In more recent times, forest managers have observed how forests have changed due to the exclusion of fire, and have gained an understanding of fire’s importance in forest health. Without natural fire, more seedlings have survived to maturity, resulting in a denser and less healthy forest. Also, more needles and debris have accumulated due to the exclusion of fire, resulting in an increased fire danger.

Prescribed fire addresses these problems by approximating natural fire and reducing the amount of hazardous fuels. Prescribed fire is needed today to replenish soil nutrients, stimulate new growth, and to maintain biological diversity; all of which contribute to a healthy forest. In addition to a healthier forest, another benefit resulting from prescribed fire and a healthier forest is a reduction in fire danger for our communities. Areas treated with prescribed fire are less likely to burn intensely during a wildfire and allow a wildfire to be brought under control more easily.

While prescribed fire has proven to be successful in improving forest health and reducing the danger of catastrophic wildfires, there is a side effect: smoke. Air quality considerations are an integral part of prescribed fire for forest managers, and each fire prescription is formulated in order to disperse smoke rapidly and reduce lingering haze. Before each prescribed fire is ignited, forest managers must get approval from the Arizona Department of Environmental Quality (ADEQ). Additionally, a current weather report is obtained in order to ensure that weather conditions are conducive to smoke management and a safe burn. It is the goal of forest managers to minimize smoke impacts to our communities while still accomplishing forest health and fuels reduction goals. Yet, even in favorable conditions the air will still become smoky. Much like people who live in deserts can expect extreme temperatures in the summer, people who live in and around the forest should expect some smoke in the cooler months when weather conditions allow for low intensity burning.

Today we understand the importance of fire in our forests. Prescribed fire is the result of that understanding and represents just one of the many tools used by forest managers to improve the health of our forests and to reduce the threat of wildfire to our communities. Our forests need fire, and by planning fire prescriptions we can maximize the chance that these fires will burn on our terms.