Experts on Camera

Lenya Quinn-Davidson: Prescribed burns

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Prescribed fire—the use of fire under specific conditions to achieve ecological benefits—is one of the most effective tools available to prevent out-of-control wildfires.

On Friday, March 15, 2024, SciLine interviewed: Lenya Quinn-Davidson is the fire network director at University of California Agriculture and Natural Resources. See the footage and transcript from the interview below, or select ‘Contents’ on the left to skip to specific questions.

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LENYA QUINN-DAVIDSON: My name is Lenya Quinn-Davidson, and I am the director of the fire network for the University of California Agriculture and Natural Resources. So, I basically run the fire extension program for the University of California. And we have a team all around the state who works on various topics related to fire science and resiliency, including things like prescribed fire and wildland fire, home hardening, and kind of community resilience, and a whole host of other topics related to fire. So, I directly manage that team and then I also specifically have a real passion and interest around the use of fire—so prescribed fire and cultural burning, doing policy work, and training and capacity building. That’s really where I focus in on my program.


Interview with SciLine

What is prescribed fire?


LENYA QUINN-DAVIDSON: Prescribed fire is an incredibly versatile tool. And it’s basically the use of fire on purpose under really specific conditions to meet objectives that you’ve identified ahead of time. So, those objectives are really wide ranging and could include things like cultural objectives. So, we have a lot of indigenous partners who use fire for things like basket weaving materials, or for improving acorn crops or for hunting. But people also use prescribed fire for fuels reduction. So, actually, you know, decreasing the risk of future wildfire, and for invasive species control, for habitat restoration, for oak woodland restoration—there are so many different uses for beneficial fire.

How does prescribed fire affect the risk of future wildfires?


LENYA QUINN-DAVIDSON: Prescribed fire is used throughout the United States to act as a tool for fuels reduction and to decrease the risk of losses from future wildfires. I do want to make it clear that when we use prescribed fire, we’re not necessarily trying to prevent future fire—we’re really trying to prevent catastrophic consequences from future wildfire. So prescribed fire decreases the density of our forests. So, it makes things more open and more kind of clean and more, you know, you can look through a forest and actually see through it, that really helps with drought resilience. And then, when a future fire comes in, it can burn through and not kill all overstory trees. So, we’re really trying to moderate future fire severity.

How has the use of prescribed fire evolved in North American history?


LENYA QUINN-DAVIDSON: Fires kind of evolved, and the relationship between people and fire has evolved from really historically being one of the most powerful and primary tools that people used to shape their landscape for food resources for travel, you know, just for overall habitat quality. And we kind of lost that connection. You know, in the 1900s, fire was outlawed—the use of fire became illegal in many parts of the country. And it’s only in more recent decades that we’re really trying to bring it back in, and reclaim that connection with fire, and start using it and understanding the power that it has.

How common are prescribed fires now? Where do they occur?


LENYA QUINN-DAVIDSON: Because of the diversity of the users of prescribed fire, it can get a little messy trying to account for all of the burning that takes place. But we do have some pretty general numbers that we use. And I would say that the southeastern U.S. is really highlighted often for their incredible use of prescribed fire. So, Florida, for example, is the top user in the country. It tends to be at around 2 million acres a year, which is really impressive and something that we should all be aspiring to. If you look at California, where I am, it’s significantly less. The demand is just as high, but we’re, you know, we’re still kind of growing our capacity and our understanding of how to get these projects accomplished. We’re lucky if we get around 100,000 acres a year treated with prescribed fire in California, and the state and the Forest Service have set some pretty ambitious goals for how to increase the use of prescribed fire and to grow the scope and scale of those projects. But there’s really kind of a learning curve going on right now in the western U.S. about how to do more of this. And we really do look to places like the southeastern U.S., the Great Plains to understand how they’re doing so well with prescribed fire.

How safe are prescribed fires?


LENYA QUINN-DAVIDSON: Prescribed fire is so thoughtful, and there’s so much planning and consideration that goes into it that we see a success rate of more than 99% of prescribed burns that go exactly you know, how they have been planned. They meet objectives. They do not escape control. Less than 1% of the time, prescribed fires might go over the line, escape control, and require some extra help or resources to kind of bring things back under control. But very, very, very few prescribed burns ever cause any kind of damage to anyone’s property. And so there are these different, you know, considerations that we think about when we think of the safety of prescribed fire and the liability behind prescribed fire, but really, the chances are that this work is going to go really well and really safely.

What role can prescribed fire play in ecosystems experiencing stresses related to climate change?


LENYA QUINN-DAVIDSON: There’s been some really interesting research in the western U.S. and in California, specifically, looking at forest resilience in the face of things like drought and climate change and how prescribed fire can play a role in that. And what we find, especially for frequent fire-adapted dry forests—so forests like ponderosa pine and mixed conifer that we see in California and across much of the Western U.S.—is that when they have intact fire regimes, when we when we’ve been able to restore fire as a process, which I always say, you know, fire is a process as important as rain, or snow, or sunlight. In a lot of these forests. It’s something that was so frequent. If we can restore that fire regime, then we see an a great increase in resilience to things like climate change and drought, and future wildfire. So, it’s really important that we restore this as a process. These are not one time projects. Prescribed fire is not a one off intervention—it’s really a long-term commitment to the landscape that we recognize fire is important and that we’re going to continue to bring fire into these places to make them more resilient.

What can you tell us about community-based prescribed fire projects?


LENYA QUINN-DAVIDSON: We have about 24 community-based prescribed fire groups that are across the state of California that engage 1000s and 1000s of volunteers, and people are learning how to use prescribed fire—they’re implementing their own projects—and they’re doing it really safely. And so, I liken it to a social movement. It really is. People are kind of reclaiming this connection, and it’s fun, and it’s joyful, and it’s bringing people together.

How does the policy landscape support or limit prescribed burns?


LENYA QUINN-DAVIDSON: Prescribed fire policy is generally really at the state level. And so, depending on which state you’re in, you might have a whole different set of prescribed fire laws and regulations that govern the work that you do. Here in California, we have made a lot of progress in recent years on prescribed fire policy. Really increasing opportunities for more people to be involved in this work and to have protections in this work. So, we’ve changed the liability standard in California—we’ve created a state-backed insurance fund just for private prescribed fire practitioners and cultural practitioners. We’ve created a state burn boss program that kind of links to those liability protections. And we’ve really opened up so much more opportunity in this work. So, it’s really important because the state has so many goals and targets around prescribe fire, but there was a really limited group of people who could actually do that. And now we’re breaking down those barriers. Other states are doing similar things. Places like Washington and Oregon are kind of following suit and doing similar work that we’ve been doing in California. And then a lot of states across the country already had good prescribed fire policies. I will say there’s some work at the federal level that does need to be done. And there are people who are really focused on federal policy and how to kind of, you know, open up more doors and opportunities at that federal level—both for federal agencies but also across state lines. So, there’s some interesting work happening there too.

Do you have any advice for reporters covering fire?

[Posted March 15, 2024 | Download video]