In the past few years, the California state legislature increased funding for wildfire prevention and mitigation. This includes Governor Gavin Newsom signing bills such as SB 332 in 2021, focusing on conducting prescribed burns. According to the U.S. Forest Service, a prescribed burn is a fire that is set in a controlled environment by a team of fire experts.
According to San Luis Obispo Fire Department Public Information Officer James Blattler, a large goal of prescribed burns is to reduce chances of destructive wildfires. This is done by burning away fuels like grasses, shrubs and small trees that can intensify fires.
“If you are taking out a lot of the fuel which our prescribed burn can do, what that’s going to do, it’s going to lead to firefighters having a much better chance at extinguishing a fire in the surrounding area and because there’s less fuel to burn,” Blattler said. “So the fire is not going to be as big, it’s not going to be spreading as rapidly.”
Prescribed burns are a regular occurrence in San Luis Obispo County, with Cal Fire and other local agencies planning burns in collaboration with the San Luis Obispo County Air Pollution Control District.
According to Cal Poly Wildland Fire and Fuels Management Professor Chris Dicus, prescribed burns are very different compared to unpredictable wildfires. There is deliberate and detailed planning behind the prescribed burns.
“The stars have to align in terms of personnel, wind speeds, fuel moistures, all these things before the match is ever lit,” Dicus said.
Meghan Field, the San Luis Obispo County Air Pollution Control District Public Information Officer, says at the beginning of every year, all air control agencies in the state meet and plan burns for the year. Later, the districts approve smoke management plans for up to 24 hours before the scheduled burns. The right fire at the right time in the right place is the goal of a prescribed burn. Agencies must determine if weather conditions are appropriate before final approval is given.
“They’ll wait until all the factors line up on the weather to make sure that one, it’s not too wet, like if it’s gonna be raining, because you want it to be able to actively burn the vegetation,” Blattler said. “But you also don’t want to do it when it’s too dry and the wind is going to be picking up because that might lead to what they call, like, an escaped burn or an escape fire.”
If there is anything off about the weather, like rain or high wind speeds, the burn is either rescheduled or canceled. According to Blattler, agencies typically conduct burns early in the morning to early in the afternoon, prioritizing ideal weather conditions.
Though some citizens might be wary of potential smoke, Field said that the smoke impact on prescribed burn days is minimal compared to the possible smoke coming from a wildfire.
“We have a monitoring network across our county,” Field said. She also said that the APCD has not seen an increase in “particulate matter levels” due to the fires being conducted correctly. This contrasts with wildfires, when monitors “ping up into the unhealthy range,” indicating people can experience symptoms of smoke inhalation.
In addition to wildfire prevention, the prescribed burns work as a reset button forthe natural environment. According to Dicus, burning the land sets the landscape back to an earlier stage. This makes plant life healthier and stronger.
“What looks like blackened earth, all of a sudden it sprouts back up…afterward and it’s the same exact plants, but now they’re younger and there’s less dead stuff and sort of more vibrant,” Dicus said. “It’s important to have these blocks of different age classes because that helps with ecosystem resiliency.”
The Nature Conservancy said that fire helps plant life thrive by heating the soil and decreasing the yearly buildup of leaf litter, enabling sunlight to reach the ground.. The increase in plant life also gives local wildlife grasslands and benefits local food chains and habitats. Both the reduction of fuels and the increased variety in plant life help the land become more resilient to fires.
Dave Erickson, a forester for the SLO unit of Cal Fire, said that the organization tries to recreate natural fire while working in the environment.
“The mimicry of natural fire in our projects is essential for increasing biodiversity, sequestering carbon, protecting firefighters and community as well as creating wildfire-resilient landscapes and ecosystems,” Erickson said.
Despite the preventative nature of prescribed burns, fear around possible wildfires hasn’t gone away. Erickson said that community reaction and educating the public is a big hurdle for prescribed burns.
“We try to get ahead of that through education and educating those communities and the public and the politicians to help them understand what we’re doing, how we’re doing it, why we’re doing it,” Erickson said. “And a lot of why we’re doing that is to protect those communities – not only residential, but also natural communities – from wildfires and the aftermath of wildfires.”
According to Field, the SLO County APCD and Cal Fire are currently working to make information about ongoing and prescribed burns more accessible to the public.
The SLO County APCD regularly updates their website with scheduled burns. The California Air Resources Board also has an app called California Smoke Spotter that allows people to keep track of burns nearby.