Prove your humanity

by Adriana Delagarza

As climate change surges through communities around the world, drought- and heat-induced wildfires are ravaging forests. One tool meant to prevent the onset of wildfires in dying forests is a prescribed burn.

Prescribed burns are fires deliberately set to dying forest vegetation in the interest of preventing unintentional wildfires in the future. 

The Pennsylvania Department of Conservation and Natural Resources says that prescribed fires, or controlled burns, help to encourage the growth of young trees, strengthen the plants already native to the area, and manage invasive species. They’re also an indigenous tradition used to “maintain healthy landscapes that are less prone to massive wildfires.”

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By having some jurisdiction over the timeline of ecological succession – the cycle of birth, development, death, and rebirth in a forest – firefighters can help forests avoid the damage caused by drought, extreme heat, and human activity. 

Part of the role of the prescribed fire is to contain the burn within certain boundaries of the forest so as not to harm wildlife or homes in the vicinity of the fire. 

Sometimes, those fires don’t go as planned. Investigators found that a recent fire in New Mexico – the largest in the state’s history – was caused by a prescribed fire conducted by the Forest Service.

Foresters set 411 prescribed fires in Pennsylvania in 2021 and most of them were successful. 

“Only a few, no more than two, ever get out of control and become wildfires,” said Mike Kern, Chief of the Division of Forest Fire Protection with Pennsylvania’s Department of Conservation and Natural Resources.

Some scientists say that climate change only feeds the flames. Multiple studies have seen an increase in the length of the fire season, the frequency of wildfires, and the total area of burnt land as a result of climate change. Additionally, changes in dry wind patterns and rainfall can exacerbate damage caused by wildfires, making prescribed fires harder to contain and plan for. 

When asked about whether climate change led to these fluctuations in national fire seasons, Kern was a bit hesitant. He did, however, agree that because of intense heat and dryness, some fire seasons have extended by as much as a month into the summer and winter.

“My background’s in forestry and firefighting. I’m not a climate scientist, but I can say there’s a historic multi-year drought in the West, and without some serious change to that, it’s gonna continue,” he said.

“You know, drought begets drought.”

This story is produced in partnership with StateImpact Pennsylvania, a collaboration among The Allegheny Front, WPSU, WITF and WHYY to cover the commonwealth's energy economy.