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Study: Controlled burns underused to reduce wildfire risks

The University of Idaho study shows the use of prescribed burns has decreased in the West over the last two decades.
Credit: Boise National Forest
Prescribed burns in the Boise National Forest are intended to cut back on fuels, large wildfire potential to communities and improve wildlife habitat.

LEWISTON, Idaho — Land management agencies are underutilizing controlled burns to reduce wildfire threats in the western U.S., according to a wildfire study.

The University of Idaho study indicates the use of the intentionally set fires has decreased over the last two decades in the West while it has ramped up in southeastern states, The Lewiston Tribune reported Friday.

Controlled fires mitigate wildfire threats by burning hazardous forest vegetation that can fuel wild blazes, said Crystal Kolden, a professor at the university's College of Natural Resources who authored the study. The fires are only ignited under specific conditions and are closely monitored. They also help restore fire-prone ecosystems.

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"Prescribed fire has actually decreased over the last 21 years in the western United States," Kolden said. "This means one of our best tools to reduce wildfire disasters is not being used."

Western states have less social acceptance for the practice because of the smoke, lack of funding and the occasional fire that escapes control, Kolden said.

Public support for controlled burns in the southeastern states developed over decades based on collaborative partnerships between landowners and state agencies, Kolden said.

"It didn't happen magically in the Southeast," Kolden said. "It took some key folks 80 years ago to push for prescribed fire and to work with industry to facilitate that happening. And now it has become something that happens there annually and everyone expects it to happen."

The practice might gain better acceptance in the West if people see its potential to improve big game habitat, she said.