Lighting the Fire: Changing the views on prescribed burns on the west coast through education

Olivia Gould,Christina Baker,Erika Harimoto


Figure 1

Figure 1


The little girl cowers in the living room. The flames rise higher and higher. Every snap and crackle sounds like a thunderclap. In her fear she pulls her blanket over her eyes and hides behind the couch, desperately trying to get away from the scene in front of her. If she closes her eyes, maybe all will be well, but she can’t keep them closed. Morbid curiosity forces her eyes open. The flames leap. The timber cracks. The girl screams. “Run Bambi, ruuuuunnnnnnnnnn.”

Generations grew up with Bambi and watched in terror as the forest fire enveloped Bambi’s home. These scenes and similar ones in conjunction with media campaigns such as Smokey the Bear promulgated a negative image of wildfire amongst the general public by dwelling on the destructive force of forest fires. However, this negative attitude originally stemmed from early twentieth century efforts to protect timber resources, which were a valuable part of the US economy (Pyne, 1984).


According to Adams, the western United States saw a decrease in wildfires in the early to mid-1800s when agricultural efforts leading to land clearing and the introduction of grazing livestock decreased fuel availability (2013).  As the 19th century progressed, changing precipitation patterns, fluctuating temperatures, and rising population numbers resulted in increased fire activity (Pechony & Shindell, 2010). Between 1871 and 1947 the country experienced over 1,700 horrendous fires like that of the Chicago fire of 1871, which killed over 1000 people (Thomas & Alexander, 2013). Because of the unmanageable nature of these fires and destruction of resources, property, and human life, the government created the US Forest Service and charged it with suppressing all fires (Adams, 2013).




Improper forest fire management over the past 100 years caused severe ecological and economic damage to the west coast. Suppression of wildfires on the west coast led to fuel build up within forests. Fuel is anything from downed trees to woody materials within the forest (Thomas & Alexander, 2013). Along with global climate change, this practice of complete fire suppression created the perfect environment for high intensity fires, with the west coast suffering disproportionately to the rest of the country (Rummer, 2005).  More firefighters have died, more homes have been destroyed, and more acres have burned over the past 13 years than in 100 years of wildfire activity combined (Thomas & Alexander, 2013).

“On average, wildfires burn twice as many acres each year as compared to 40 years ago. Last year, the fires were massive in size, coinciding with increased temperatures and early snow melt in the West,” said U.S. Forest Service Chief Tom Tidwell in an expose for the Denver Post (Gurman, 2013, p. 1). These intense fires are far more destructive to people’s homes and livelihoods than those encountered in the past and can destroy millions of acres a year. Statements from the National Interagency Fire Center [NIFC] (2013) reported that 51,811 fires had burned 9,003,581 acres in 2012. Furthermore, from 2004 to 2013 the center recorded that 654,279 forest fires had incinerated a total of 70,448,549 acres (NIFC, 2013).

Wildfires can also endanger entire industries. In 2011 the Pacific Northwest Research Center announced that the west coast logging industry had a net worth of $687 million dollar (Zhou, 2013). The logging industry is a valuable resource on which many people’s livelihood depends. Fires of such intensity impact many aspects of human life, from homes to industry, yet it is possible to fight fire with fire.




Prescribed burns may be the key to mitigating the effects of forest fires. The US Forest Service characterizes prescribed burns as the intentional setting of fires conducted to clear underbrush and diminish fuel availability for potentially larger unintentional fires (Thomas & Alexander, 2013). In addition to reducing fuels, prescribed burns aid in regeneration of wind-disseminated species by exposing mineral soil for seedbeds. Controlled burns also help regulate insect populations, curb the spread of disease, and temper competition among various species of vegetation (Fernandes & Hermínio, 2005). Prescribed burning will improve natural ecosystems, preserve wildlife habitat, and safeguard range forest.

Using fire to fight fire is not a concept novel to this century. Many Native American tribes set fires to clear land for agriculture, to improve access to forests, and to attract game species by changing the composition of the plant community (William, 2000). Other peoples who settled the west coast emulated these tribes, igniting fires to assist in the remediation of soils for their crops. History shows that these burnings ameliorated the intensity of wildfires, therefore forest managers can use prescribed burnings advantageously today (Adams, 2013).

Educating adolescents on the benefits of prescribed burning will promote a positive change in attitude towards this practice on the West coast and encourage widespread practice. Education establishes an opportunity to challenge the preconceived notions that society has formed about fire. Although some people remain leery about the effects and management of prescribed burns, implementing a controlled burn program will benefit the west coast. Through the education of adolescents, the voices of the future, people will begin to understand this process and it advantages and society will repudiate its negative view of fire.




The scientific community has documented how prescribed burns encapsulate numerous positive benefits for forest health. Prescribed burns reintroduce a fire cycle into the landscape. Fire helps to create a healthy and productive ecosystem within forests.  It is one of the few forces that can negatively impact invasive species that would otherwise flourish. Exclusion of natural fire regimes for an unnatural amount of time on the west coast led to a thriving population of invasive plant species. According to Keeley (2006),  post germination prescribed burn management proved efficacious in removing invasive species of annual grass, especially within the “Intermountain West sagebrush steppe or California chaparral which have a natural, high-intensity crown fire regime that is less amenable to forest restoration tactics” (p. 375).

Invasive species are not limited to vegetative specimens. The imported fire ant (Solenopsis Invicta) is currently assailing the South. In warmer climates this generalist species can thrive in disturbed or undisturbed habitat. While recent soil disturbances have increased the prevalence of the invasive fire ant, lengthier time between burns exacerbated this problem (LeBrun, Plowes, & Gilbert, 2012). This invasion has negatively affected the native invertebrates. The use of prescribed burns will decrease the fire ant population and allow renewal of native species.

Endangered species are on the opposite end of the spectrum. The many locations protected for endangered species require active management to maintain long-term habitat suitability, especially for those species that require early successional habitat or grassland areas.  A factor detrimentally influencing critically endangered species threatened by invasive flora and fauna is the “disruption of natural fire disturbance regimes” (Wilcove & Chen, 1998). Wilcove and Chen (1998) suggest using the mechanical removal of invasive species in conjunction with prescribed burns to manage fire-adapted specie areas or utilizing fire to control parasites that threaten rare species.


Along with benefits to wildlife, prescribed burns also help with soil ecology and remediation. When Covington and Sackett (1992) studied the immediate and long-term effects of prescribed burns on the soil nutrient cycle, they found that ammonium levels increased immediately after the burning resulted in the complete incineration of forest floor material. The nitrification cycle later converted this ammonium to nitrate. Nitrate is a limiting factor for plant growth and without the proper soil nitrate levels, plant life cannot exist (Covington & Sackett, 1992). Within the forest, fire upregulates many important ecological cycles whose overwhelmingly positive benefits not only help to support the idea of prescribed burning, but also show how  important fire is to supporting a healthy forest system. When we asked D. Kittredge, a forestry Professor at the University of Massachusetts, Amherst for his thoughts about prescribed burning, he wrote prescribed burning can:

“Create new kinds of habitat; control fuel loads and minimize the risk of wildfire; control invasive vegetation; maintain views. Like any tool, it can be used, and misused, but in general I think it is a great tool to have in the land manager’s toolkit”. (personal communication, November 13, 2013).


Additionally, prescribed burns will increase safety for residents and firefighters on the west coast. On June 30th of this year, 19 firefighters fighting a massive wildfire that blazed out of control were killed in Arizona. According to the U.S. Fire Administration [USFA] (2013), this year 90 firefighters have fallen while serving. During the black Forest Fire, which destroyed 486 homes in June 2013, residents incurred $85 million in damage according to the Denver Post (Gurman, 2013). By decreasing the unnatural amount of fuel buildup in forests and around homes the government could potentially reduce the severity of wildland fires and decrease the risk to firefighters and homeowners. Of the 12.7% of firefighter deaths that were related to wildland fires, 14.8 % were due to directly battling the flames per the U.S Fire Administration (2013). The three main causes of death were heart attack, 47.2%, fire related trauma, 28.2%, and asphyxiation, 6.4% (USFA, 2013).

In addition to decreasing fire intensity and risk of harm to lives and homes, fuel reduction via prescribed burning will also reduce the monetary loss resulting from battling intense forest fires. According to the Western Forestry Leadership Coalition, more than 50% of all funds accessed to battle forest fires go towards fire suppression (Rummer, 2005). Ingalsbee (2010) wrote about the rising costs to taxpayers from battling these large forest fires: “Wildfire suppression costs are soaring to over one billion tax dollars per year. This is causing a fiscal crisis in the Forest Service which has exceeded its suppression budget almost every year for the last 20 years” (p. 4). As he explains in his article, suppression costs are rising due to a surge in wildfire activity and in particular the frequency of large scale wildfires (Inglesbee, 2010). Although experts categorize only 2% of wildfires as large, these kinds of fire consume 94% of the total fire suppression costs (Inglesbee, 2010). Using proactive preventive measures like prescribed burning rather than reactive measures like fire suppression would also alleviate some costs to taxpayers. While it is not feasible to use prescribed burns throughout the whole forest, applying them on a smaller scale would achieve favorable results for firefighters, homeowners, and businesses around residential areas and cities.




            After verifying that fires are natural and beneficial processes, prescribed burn advocates must decide how to best disseminate this information. When endeavoring to change society’s negative image of fire and promote positive attitudes towards prescribed burns, educational efforts geared towards adolescents would be more effective than those directed at adults and children.

Ballard, Evans, Sturtevant, and Jakes (2012) claim that adult education and outreach about fire exist, however this education focuses on understanding fires, fire preparation, and adapting homes. The authors describe a program hosted by the National Fire Protection Association that teaches homeowners about the benefits of low intensity fires and shows them different techniques, such as clearing the vegetation from around their homes to create a defensive space, that can help protect their homes (Ballard et al., 2012). In 2013 Monroe, Agrawal, Jakes, Kruger, Nelson, and Sturtevant published a study that supports the claim regarding adult education. Educators targeting adults typically attempted to alter the adults’ behavior, thereby increasing home safety (Monroe et al., 2013). However, adults have families to protect, homes and material possessions for which to care, and bills to pay. While environmental education may shift how they view nature, their first priority will always be taking care of those under their protection and they do not have the time to advocate for policy change.

A second age class that educators often desire to reach is young children e.g. those in elementary school. They absorb information easily and are often very impressionable. However, they usually have a limited ability to understand complex situations and educators are often met with confusion when they try to portray multiple facets of a problem. This can have negative consequences which is why young children are primarily encouraged to view fire as a dangerous and negative natural force (Ballard et al. 2012). Of fifty different fire education programs designed specifically for children aged K-5, 68% focused on fire safety and wildfire prevention or suppression (Ballard et al. 2012). For this age group educators consider this particular focus to be more developmentally appropriate, but it is still similar to adult targeted education, which emphasizes home fire safety (Ballard et al. 2012).

The final age category to consider is adolescents. Armed with a more developed brain and broader knowledge base, but still spared from the burdens of finances and supporting a family, this age group holds the key to shifting society’s view on controversial topics. Of the 50 education programs mentioned earlier, 32% targeted sixth through twelfth grade students and focused on science, ecology, and the management aspects of wildfires (Ballard et al., 2012).  Within those ecology based programs, half of them covered wildfire as part of a broader yet intensive resource management curriculum (Ballard et al., 2012). Educators can only introduce these subjects at this age because foundational knowledge is necessary to understand the ecological processes and the convoluted line between the positive and negative consequences of fire (Ballard et al., 2012).

Youth environmental education on topics like forest fire management help influence beliefs and attitudes that encourage responsible environmental behavior like advocating for prescribed burns (Ardoin & Heimlich, 2013). Although adults may possibly have the power to enact immediate change, other priorities make them ineffective supporters of prescribed burns. Comparatively, children’s neural pathways have not developed enough nor do they have the requisite background knowledge required to comprehend how fire can have both positive and negative effects. The only group fully capable of understanding and acting are adolescents, the future of the world. Ardoin and Heimlich (2013) purport that environmental education creates a greater understanding of ecological processes, including that of forest fire cycles, and enhances people’s awareness of environmental problems. If implemented with youth on the west coast, environmental education would positively impact the view society has on fire and its beneficial role in forests.


            Despite the benefits and historical use of fire, prescribed burning remains a highly controversial topic. Due to cultural figures such as Smokey the Bear and social media’s portrayal of forest fires, members of the general public view fire as a solely negative force and cannot perceive the potential benefit of prescribed burns. However as mentioned previously, forest fires are a natural part of the landscape and provide many ecological benefits.

Within the general public, there is a sub-demographic that has legitimate concerns. This is the people who have lost family, friends, or their entire homes to wildfires. These people need to know that allowing fuels such as woody debris to build up will only make wildfires more intense and uncontrollable. According to Mitchell, Harmon, and O’Connell (2009), prescribed burns are effective in reducing fire severity through fuel reduction, a conclusion shared by other studies that they list in their paper. Also, prescribed burns create cleared areas that allow firefighters to access remote regions and combat wildfires before they approach residential areas (Adams, 2013). If prescribed burnings are allowed on the West Coast, then fire suppression efforts will be more effective, homes and residents will be safer, and lives will be spared.

Outside of the general public, there are environmentalists who believe that prescribed burning will lead to greater carbon emissions, more erosion and nutrient loss, and increased water usage. However, the juxtaposition of wildfires and prescribed burns shows that controlled burning causes less carbon to be released from the soil and less atmospheric emissions of carbon (Adams, 2013). Further, while the problem of erosion does need to be more fully addressed, prescribed burns cause smaller areas of erosion than high intensity wildfires and there is no evidence of long-term productivity loss associated with instigating prescribed burns every 5-10 years (Adams, 2013). Finally, there is limited literature on how prescribed burns affect water uptake, but studies have established that increased water use post burn is due the new vegetative growth (Adams, 2013). Therefore it logically follows that if prescribed burns reduce the size and number of large wildfires, there will be less new growth and less water uptake. The scientific literature clearly indicates that prescribed burning is both ecologically beneficial and effective in increasing homeowner and firefighter safety.


To create a more positive feeling towards fire use in the west coast forests, prescribed burn advocates should employ educational outreach programs. Research has shown that adolescent outreach is most effective because adolescents are not yet burdened by the weight of adulthood, but are mentally mature and developed enough to understand the complexity of ecosystem management.

Using hands-on educational activities, like those that Ballard et al. (2012) suggested in his research of environmental educational methods, are the best tools to reach adolescents. For example,  “students participating in demonstrations of fire behavior by burning different fuels on a table of sand….learn about forest and wildfire ecology” (Ballard, 2012 p.9). Kinesthetic learning contributes to increased information retention.

Engaging learners with community members is another approach that educators can use in teaching wildfire ecology (Ballard et al., 2012). In this scenario not only can educators present students with information about the positive benefits of fire, but these students can also impart this knowledge to other people and gain a greater understanding of it in the process. Students can partake in activities like role playing to establish a dialogue about different fire and forest management methodologies, including prescribed burning (Ballard et al., 2012). To facilitate this type of education the forest service could forge a mentorship program between the service and post elementary school systems. This partnership would benefit both parties through exchanging information and changing social attitudes about fire.

The United States Forest Service (2013) has sponsored many youth development programs, working with at risk-youth organizations to provide environmental educational opportunities and enrichment activities. Ceaser (2012) states that in effective environmental education “the students learn contextual value laden environmental knowledge, connect that environmental learning to real-world environmental/social problems, and take action” (p.3). Ceaser (2012) further argues that youth education in disadvantaged neighborhoods produces students who are more enlightened and empowered to create environmental change and take action. A Forest Service sponsored youth mentorship/developmental program that talks about the positive effects of prescribed burning would create both a change in society’s views and opportunities for adolescents that need it the most. Education can be used to battle social stigma about fire, poor policy choices, and lack of proper ecosystem management. A quote from Nelson Mandela sums up our feelings, “Education is the most powerful weapon which you can use to change the world.”

The education of adolescents on prescribed burns will motivate policy change and future implementation of this practice. Creating a hands-on education system where adolescents can learn about the positive aspects of fire, will create advocates for the practice of prescribed burning. While adolescents may convince their parents to support prescribed burns, this is not the primary goal of the proposed mentorship. The fundamental objective is to counter the stigma associated with fire to which adolescents were exposed to during childhood so that future generations will no longer view fire as a solely detrimental element. Changing how society perceives fire, will allow the west coast to avoid the past mistakes of forest fire management. By creating a dialogue between policy makers, forest managers, and the general public, citizens can protect the west coast forests from being decimated. The strongest tool for change lies within the education of adolescents, the future keepers of our country’s natural resources.
































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