August 9th marks 79 years since the U.S. Forest Service and Ad Council partnered to create the living mascot that has become the worldwide symbol for wildfire prevention and education. We are celebrating Smokey’s birthday by talking about the kind of fire that even Smokey likes, prescribed fires.

While it may seem counterintuitive, a planned fire can be the most effective tool to manage the intensity and spread of future wildfires and even to prevent them from happening. We call these fires prescribed fires or burns. Much like a doctor prescribes medicine to keep you healthy, prescribed fires improve the overall health and safety of our national forests. Indigenous people across North America have been utilizing fire to support sustainable, healthy forests for millennia. Today, they are a vital tool for land managers like the Forest Service.

Janie Agyagos, Wildlife Biologist, Coconino National Forest states, “Prescribed fire is one of the most efficient ways to restore our various biotic communities back to as close to pre-Euro-American settlement conditions as possible. Being able to determine when to burn is a safer way of attaining the same outcomes as natural wildfires and fires that indigenous peoples started. A century of suppressing fires, turn of the century overgrazing, and invasion of non-native plants are the main culprits in the alteration of various vegetative communities, especially ponderosa pine forests and grasslands.”

In January 2022, the Forest Service published “Confronting the Wildfire Crisis: A Strategy for Protecting Communities and Improving Resilience in America’s Forests”. Working with other government agencies, Tribes, communities, and partners, they identified high-risk landscapes that would benefit from investments that would reduce exposure of people, communities and natural resources to the risk of catastrophic wildfire. The Coconino, along with Tonto, Kiabab, and Apache-Sitgreaves National Forests, was identified as an investment area to restore the structure, pattern, composition, and health of fire-adapted ecosystems across 2.4 million acres in northern Arizona.

Sedona’s ecosystem is not ponderosa pine, yet the area still benefits from prescribed burns. “The role of fire is a bit different in each biotic community. For example, natural wildfires swept through our grasslands at frequent intervals killing the newly established shrubs and trees. But a century of fire suppression has allowed shrubs and trees to mature resulting in a conversion of our grassland to shrublands and woodlands. Once we manually remove mature trees, prescribed fire and managed wildfires can once again maintain our grasslands as grasslands,” noted Agyagos.

Every prescribed fire has a burn plan that identifies the conditions under which vegetation will burn to safely get the best results. Considerations include temperature, relative humidity, wind, moisture of live and dead fuels, and smoke dispersal. The Arizona Department of Environmental Quality reviews all burn plans and considers smoke impacts and air quality before accepting or rejecting the plan. Fire managers will compare ground conditions to those outlined in the burn plan to decide whether to burn on any given day. Throughout the burn, fire managers will continuously evaluate the conditions to ensure the fire remains in prescription and is achieving its goals.

A key benefit of a prescribed fire is that it reduces the risk of a more dangerous, extreme wildfire by clearing out dense undergrowth on the forest floor. As trees drop their leaves and lose branches, that debris joins the shrubs, grasses, and vegetation already on the ground and creates an overabundance of fuel for wildfires. By conducting a prescribed fire when conditions allow for low-intensity surface fire, the chances that a more devastating high intensity uncontrollable fire will occur is severely limited.

Other benefits of using fire on the landscape include increasing plant diversity, controlling invasive species, reducing tree competition, and improving wildlife habitat. “Southwestern soils do not receive nutrients from decomposition as other wetter areas of the country do, and wood does not decompose readily in southwestern soils. Frequent low-intensity fire returns nitrogen to the soil, supplying it with the nutrients vital to vegetation growth. It brings grasses and plants that promote wildlife habitat, reduce erosion, and protect watersheds” states Public Affairs Officer, CNF, Brady Smith.

While there are many benefits of fire that a prescribed burns facilitates, a prescribed fire is still a fire. Fires are heavily influenced by their environment. On rare occasions, a prescribed fire may experience an unexpected shift in wind and can become uncontrolled. It will then be declared a wildfire. Unfortunately, this puts people, property, animals, and other parts of the forest at risk. A risk always exists when fire is put on the ground. When fire managers decide to execute a prescribed fire, they make an educated decision where rewards far outweigh any potential risk.

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Serving Sedona, written this week by Melissa Pontikes, Friends of the Forest and mother of a wildland firefighter, appears Wednesday in the Sedona Red Rock News.