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Amid clamor to increase prescribed burns, obstacles await

by Mary Sewell

SALEM, Ore. — In the 1950s, when University of California forestry professor Harold Biswell experimented with prescribed burns in the state’s pine forests, many people thought he was nuts.

“Harry the Torch,” “Burn-Em-Up Biswell,” and “Doctor Burnwell” were some of his nicknames from critics, who included federal and state foresters and timber groups.

Six decades after Biswell preached an unpopular message to those who advocated full-on fire suppression, he is seen not as crazy but someone whose ideas could save the U.S. West’s forests and ease wildfire dangers.

Millions of acres have become overgrown, prone to wildfires that have devastated towns, triggered massive evacuations, and blanketed the West Coast in thick smoke.

Today, officials want to sharply increase prescribed fires — those set intentionally and under carefully controlled conditions to clear underbrush, pine needle beds, and other surface fuels.

Last month, four Democratic U.S. senators — Ron Wyden of Oregon, Joe Manchin of West Virginia, Maria Cantwell of Washington, and Dianne Feinstein of California — introduced legislation that requires federal land managers to significantly increase the number and size of prescribed fires on federal lands. Wyden said it would more than double funding for prescribed burns. We would have a technically skilled prescribed fire workforce,” Wyden said in a phone interview. “We would streamline the smoke regulations in winter months.

Wyden and the Biden administration are also seeking the creation of a 21st century Civilian Conservation Corps to provide more boots on the ground to work on forest health.

In New Mexico, Gov. Michelle Lujan Grisham signed legislation on March 18 to clear the way for more prescribed fires by establishing liability standards for landowners who conduct them and creating a certification program.

In Oregon, a bill from state Sen. Jeff Golden would enact rules for prescribed fires and a certified burn manager program. He envisions Oregon having as many as hundreds of trained managers to supervise prescribed fires. I don’t see that we have any option other than to increase the prescribed burns,” said Golden, who is from the Rogue Valley, where wildfires tore into two towns last year. “We’ve got, across the Western U.S., a buildup of decades of fuels, and it’s going to burn.

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