As a second edition of their webinar series focused on private forestry issues, the Western Landowners Alliance (WLA) recently hosted a panel discussion on the uses of and challenges inherent in using prescribed fire to manage forests entitled Prescribed Fire on Private Land - A WLA Practitioner Exchange.
The experienced professionals sharing their insights included:
- Ron Hvizdak, Montana, USFS Fire Management Officer, Kootenai National Forest
- Jeremy Bailey, Utah, Fire Training Network Coordinator, The Nature Conservancy
- James Fischer, Colorado, Forester, Trinchera Ranch
- Doug Boykin, New Mexico, District Forester, Socorro, New Mexico State Forestry, New Mexico Tree Farm Program, Save our Bosque (Rio Grande)
- Don Decker, Arizona, District Conservationist, Douglas, NRCS
Each of the speakers agreed that prescribed fire is a useful tool for proper management in most settings, and that time has shown that areas that were treated with prescribed fire helped slow or control natural wildfires. In this age of decades of suppression of natural fires primarily on public lands, private lands are at an even higher risk of fire danger due to the high fuel loads on public lands. Jeremy Bailey shared specific statistics defending the need of prescribed fire given these circumstances. According to Bailey, 80% of our vegetative communities depend on fire, and at some point in their lifecycle depend or require fire to move through them. In the absence of fire, grasslands ecosystems in particular are disappearing within 40-50 years.
Though prescribed fire was touted as a useful management tool, there were resounding concerns from all of the panelists regarding the use of prescribed fire, including the following overarching challenges:
PUBLIC PERCEPTION AND LANDOWNER EDUCATION - Maybe it was the Smokey the Bear campaign or how ominous smoke can look on the horizon or the related air quality concerns, but regardless of the trigger, smoke often gets a negative reaction from the public. We've all heard "where there's smoke, there's a fire," and generally fire is often considered dangerous and destructive, rather than necessary, useful, or beneficial. Additionally, in regions with large forest-related industries like in Northern Rockies, public perception among many focuses on tree mortalities and associates prescribed fires as a practice that "kill trees that could be money."
How to address: The divide between reality and perception permeates most conservation and stewardship issues. Prescribed fire is another tool that could use a better PR campaign. State agencies, landowner groups, conservation organizations, and local communities can concentrate efforts to better explain the positive benefits and realities associated with what the public identifies as risks. Just the same, landowners themselves often need to be educated on the potential applications of prescribed fires. Groups like the Malpai Borderlands Group, WLA and The Nature Conservancy are working to educate communities and landowners. As these efforts become more cohesive, concentrated, and collaborative, public perception can change, but it will take work on behalf of many across a large number of individual communities.
LIABILITY - The perceived and actual liability associated with the risk of escape may be the largest, most cumbersome challenge in using prescribed fire to manage private forest lands. Burning insurance is difficult to obtain, and the fears of "what ifs" with a force as powerful as fire can often skew the actual probabilities of the "what ifs" ever actually occurring.
Because of the personnel concern detailed below, most landowners who are conducting burns are not using qualified and insured contractors. In Colorado, the State gives full indemnification of a burn boss if they reach federal standards, but the qualification to reach that indemnification is so high that it doesn’t really help the landowner out that much unless they hire a contractor or have a qualified neighbor. Oftentimes, landowners don’t have insurance to mitigate their liability because it doesn't exist in their market. These landowners often mitigate the risk by careful planning, coordination and cooperation. Typically, they work with agencies and neighbors to prep their land ahead of time for better fire management so the actual risk of escape, damage, or injury is much lower than one might think.
How to address: Across the country, there are a handful of models that have been utilized by landowners to help lower the risk and address the concern of landowner liability.
- Neighbors helping neighbors in a landowner association model - A landowner helps on prescribed burns on the property of others in the group a few times and then that landowner's property can be on the list for future group managed burns. In this model, everyone brings their own equipment. This model has been implemented in Nebraska, Oklahoma, and parts of Texas. Landowner groups in New Mexico and Colorado are now utilizing the neighbors helping neighbors method. Due to its success, this model for mitigating liability when applying fire is gaining interest even up in Oregon.
- Use of contractors - Contractors provide liability insurance in addition to leadership, expertise, qualifications, and access to more equipment. The risk of escape and the associated damages are often covered under a contractor's liability insurance, which takes much of the liability off the landowner.
- Community wide approach - This method brings together stakeholders across agencies, landowners, municipalities, conservation organizations, and more to combine efforts and share liability. These projects are often complex and unique to the specific geography and property being burned. A great example of this model is the 2014 Klamath River TREX project.
- Coordination with agency or non-profit - Private landowners coordinating with federal or state agencies or non-profits that are overseeing and conducting the burning can often pass liability off to the agency or non-profit when the priority objective of the agency or organization conducting or funding the burning is fulfilled with the prescribed burn. In this scenario, the goals of landowner are subordinated to the objectives of the agency or non-profit. With the use of this method, the agency or organization takes on the liability of escape, but typically the landowner indemnifies the agency or organization from damage on the owner's property.
- Change legislation - State-by-state there's potential to work through prescribed fire councils or landowner groups to modify legislation regarding burning insurance to make it easier for landowners to acquire protection. When using this method to address the risk of liability, folks should look to Arkansas according to the panel. Arkansas is considered the state that is most is progressive with private land fire tools including a week long training for landowners and indemnification for those that go through the “certified burner” program. Landowners go to a class and get experience to receive a certificate. The certification is easier to get for landowners than the federal standards that take years and much career work to achieve.
PERSONNEL - Regardless of state or landscape, there seems to be difficulty in finding local or regional expertise to plan and conduct prescribed burns. Often the scale or size of one project isn't large enough to attract out of state expertise to bid on a project. In addition, the primary priority for the local agency personnel that may be able to provide assistance at times is not prescribed fire - instead it's wildfire. This is a conflict because planning prescribed burns deep within planning season is met with hesitation due to limited resources and the inability to plan for wildfire.
How to address: This challenge, though it exists across the west, is really addressed on a regionally specific scale. Generally speaking, utilizing the resources and connections of a prescribed fire council, which exist in over 30 states, is one way to address the concern of personnel. Additionally, increasing the scale or scope of a project can help overcome this challenge. Private landowners or a combination of private and public landowners can come together to create a package deal to attract a contractor. The larger scale often makes the project worth while particularly for out of town operators.
PLANNING AND COORDINATION - The concern of lack of adequate resources to plan or coordinate a prescribed burn dovetails off of the personnel challenge. Oftentimes the expertise lies within agencies, if it exists on a regional level at all. Landowners can feel unequipped to plan and coordinate prescribed burns due to the challenges mentioned in this list among others.
How to address: Again, utilizing the resources and connections of a local or state prescribed fire council is the easiest and best way to address this challenge. Additionally, landowners are encouraged to use state resources that exist in most states within the state forest agencies. For example, according to Doug Boykin, New Mexico's State Forestry agency has the resources to provide technical assistance to landowners in planning and coordinating (not on the ground as much) prescribed fires.
COST - Liability, personnel, and planning and coordination challenges can drive up cost. This concern is often associated with unknowns and lack of expertise or experience.
How to address: There are opportunities to augment or share costs, but often landowners need to get creative to finance prescribed fires. The use of the neighbors helping neighbors method and coordination with agencies or non-profits approach can often help offset costs. In terms of getting creative, landowners can look for related funding sources. For example, a portion of the funding that is available for this type of management and used for prescribed burns from northwestern Montana down to southern New Mexico is under the auspice of wildlife habitat and associated landscape restoration instead of explicitly decreasing fuel load. For this type of funding to be attained, plans should be written to achieve these goals.
The tool of prescribed fire on private land cannot be fully explored or explained without considering and including prescribed fire on public lands. Treatment of private lands can stand alone, be in conjunction with public or can be a function of the fact that often treating private lands allows for better treatment of the stands on public land. The two are often not mutually exclusive due to the proximity of lands and to the concerns listed above. The use of a public-private partnership in some form addresses each of the concerns of using prescribed fire to manage private forest lands.