Barriers and enablers for prescribed burns for wildfire management in California

Abstract

Prescribed burns to reduce fuel can mitigate the risk of catastrophic wildfires. However, multiple barriers limit their deployment, resulting in their underutilization, particularly in forests. We evaluate sociopolitical barriers and opportunities for greater deployment in California, an area recurrently affected by catastrophic fires. We use a mixed-methods approach combining expert interviews, state legislative policy analysis and prescribed-burn data from state records. We identify three categories of barriers. Risk-related barriers (fear of liability and negative public perceptions) prevent landowners from beginning the burn planning process. Both resource-related barriers (limited funding, crew availability and experience) and regulations-related barriers (poor weather conditions for burning and environmental regulations) prevent landowners from conducting burns, creating a gap between planning and implementation. Recent policies have sought to address mainly risk-related challenges, although these and regulations-related challenges remain. Fundamental shifts in prescribed-burn policies, beyond those currently under consideration, are needed to address wildfires in California and worldwide.

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Fig. 1: Process to conduct a prescribed burn by landowner.
Fig. 2: Trends in prescribed-burn implementation and wildfire-related proposed legislation.
Fig. 3: Barriers and enablers to deploying prescribed burns.

Data availability

For the interviews, the data that support the findings of this study are available from the corresponding author on request and under limits permissible by the Institutional Review Board. The data are not publicly available due to them containing information that could compromise research participant privacy/consent.

For PFIRS, the data that support the findings of this study are available on request from the California Air Resources Board’s Prescribed Fire Information Reporting System (https://ssl.arb.ca.gov/pfirs/).

Source data on bills are available from the California State Legislature (http://leginfo.legislature.ca.gov/faces/billSearchClient.xhtml) and are provided within the paper. Source data on acres burned are available from the National Interagency Fire Center’s Historical year-end fire statistics by state (source NICC) (https://www.nifc.gov/fireInfo/fireInfo_statistics.html) and are provided within the paper.

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Acknowledgements

B. Cain and L. Ortolano provided feedback on a draft version of the manuscript. This work has been funded by an E-IPER Summer Research Grant and a McGee Research Grant.

Author information

R.K.M., C.B.F. and K.J.M. conceived and designed the research. R.K.M. conducted interviews and analysed the data. R.K.M., C.B.F. and K.J.M. contributed to results and discussion. R.K.M. wrote the paper. C.B.F. and K.J.M. provided comments.

Correspondence to Rebecca K. Miller.

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Supplementary Fig. 1, Tables 1–5, notes and references.

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Miller, R.K., Field, C.B. & Mach, K.J. Barriers and enablers for prescribed burns for wildfire management in California. Nat Sustain 3, 101–109 (2020). https://doi.org/10.1038/s41893-019-0451-7

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