PD Editorial: Smoke on the horizon is a good sign these days
North Bay residents understandably worry when they see a plume of smoke on the horizon, as they have in recent days. But these fires, primarily in Sonoma and Napa counties, aren’t cause for alarm — they’re part of the state’s more aggressive approach to reducing the risk of devastating wildfires.
Trained wildland firefighters recently conducted controlled burns in sections of the Pepperwood Preserve northeast of Santa Rosa and at Jack London State Historic Park near Glen Ellen. The fires targeted open grasslands, downed trees and forest undergrowth that can provide fuel for wildfires.
The idea of fighting fire with fire might seem counterproductive at first glance, but it’s a practice that dates back millenniums. Native Americans used fire to clear land for hunting and restore nutrients to the soil. Well-controlled burns are a proven method endorsed by the Sierra Club and other conservation groups.
But as the Sierra Club and others point out, the use of controlled burns has failed to keep pace with the growing frequency and intensity of wildfires in recent years. Insufficient funding and staffing are partly to blame, as are concerns that firefighters will lose control of the flames and touch off a wildfire.
The latter concern is why officials often prefer to call them “prescribed burns” not “controlled.” Last fall’s Estrada Fire in southeastern Santa Cruz County started when a prescribed burn jumped past control lines. It forced hundreds of evacuations and burned almost 150 acres before it was contained. This year, two prescribed burns in New Mexico turned into the state’s worst fire in modern history.
But such incidents are rare — 99.84% go as planned — and the cost of not doing enough is immense, as residents of the North Bay region and around the state well know. More than 4 million acres burned during California’s record-setting fire season in 2020, contributing to more than $19 billion in economic losses.
The catastrophic fires are even more disturbing in light of a recent report by UCLA and University of Chicago researchers showing that the 2020 fire season alone erased nearly two decades of efforts in our state to reduce carbon emissions.
The fires produced an estimated 127 million metric tons of carbon dioxide equivalent, nearly double the 65 million metric tons of greenhouse gas reductions achieved in the state over the previous 18 years. The fires rank second to transportation among sources of carbon emissions, ahead of industry and electrical power plants.
Forest management, including carefully planned prescribed burns, are critical to reducing wildfire risk. Advances in technology, such as the use of camera-equipped drones and improved weather monitoring, can help ensure controlled burns remain safe.
To help residents stay informed about prescribed burns, the California Air Resources Board has set up a webpage with details on the time and location of upcoming burns. A special “smoke spotter” app is also available for download to help residents prepare. Personalized alerts can be set up to notify residents when a burn will take place nearby.
North Bay residents should take advantage of those resources. Staying informed can help ease worries — and help fire officials proceed with their work reducing the fuel load and keeping California safe.
You can send letters to the editor to email@example.com.
UPDATED: Please read and follow our commenting policy: