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Forest Service fights fire by starting a few

Robert Hudson Westover
Office of Communication
March 12, 2021

A picture of a wildland firefighter using a drip torch to start a prescribed fire.
A Forest Service employee uses a drip torch during a prescribed burn operation in the Tahoe National Forest. (USDA Forest Service photo)

The flames and billowing smoke rose high enough to veil the sun that cold February afternoon as an acre of bone-dry grasslands was ignited by a slow, fiery ooze belching from something called a drip torch. The initial wave of heat could have easily seared the clothing of the sturdy crew of fire fighters who purposely set this section of land aflame, but they knew which way the wind was blowing and lit accordingly.

That is what a prescribed burn looks like. USDA Forest Service employees repeat similar scenarios on national forests and grasslands across the U.S.

Why, you might ask, is a federal agency whose mission includes extinguishing wildland fires starting them?

The simple response is that all fire is not bad, nor is there only one kind of fire. In fact, many of our wildlands in the U.S. rely on fire to remain healthy. When conditions are safe, with calm winds and low temperatures, the Forest Service will conduct prescribed burns, somewhat assisting mother nature to create safer wildfire conditions. By burning under planned weather conditions, we can better manage the thick smoke that can come with out-of-control wildfires, and we can make our communities safer by removing some of the dry, dead debris that builds up on the forest floor.

Forest Service researchers study prescribed fire in the lab and on forests. Using experimental prescribed burns, they collect valuable information about fire behavior, fuels and emissions to then help managers better implement prescribed fire.

A picture of several small fires that were start for a prescribed fire burn.
Crews pile and burn invasive plants on federally managed lands in Oregon. (Photo by Bureau of Land Management)

Scientists from across the agency work with universities, industry and other agencies to study fire and develop tools to help land managers. Our scientists teamed with experts at Los Alamos National Laboratory and the Tall Timbers Research Station to develop the computer-based QUIC-Fire tool that rapidly predicts complex fire behavior. The tool shows how weather and fuel conditions affect ignition patterns, fire effects and smoke impacts.

Our scientists continue to study how prescribed fires can best mimic “good” wildfire so that native plant and wildlife species can thrive, carbon pools are maintained, and our forests are better able to survive drought.

Prescribed fire is just one part of a larger approach to wildfire management. When weather conditions heat up and dry out, the Forest Service works to prevent and contain fires that could threaten communities. We also use mechanical equipment to clear out dead and dying undergrowth and thin dense areas to improve tree mortality. This keeps our forests and grasslands healthy and resilient to severe wildfire and drought.

None of this would be possible without our scientists, who continue to create better models and tools to help us know how to best engage with fire – proactively and in real-time.