Prescribed burning: Do we really know what we're doing?

llow pine" model has been misapplied is Canada's boreal forest, which grows in high latitudes and typically has short trees. These forests have always had stand-replacing crown fires, and there is little evidence that fire suppression efforts have reduced the size or frequency of these fires, say E.A. Johnson of the University of Calgary in Canada and two colleagues.

Another ecosystem where the "yellow pine" model has been misapplied is southern California's chaparral, where prescribed burning has been widely used to create a mosaic of different-aged patches. The idea was that young patches have less fuel to support a fire, so they would help keep blazes from spreading. The problem with this idea is that southern California's large fires are driven high "Santa Ana" winds and are not stopped by young chaparral patches, says Keeley.

This view is supported by the fact that despite active fire suppression, the area that has burned in recent decades has remained constant or increased, say Keeley and C.J. Fotheringham of the University of California at Los Angeles. Another reason they oppose widespread prescribed burning in southern California chaparral is that it can have adverse ecological consequences.

For instance, frequent fires can promote the invasion of non-native grasses. While the authors of most of the fire management papers in the December issue of Conservation Biology agree with Keeley, one does not. Richard Minnich of the University of California at Riverside argues that today's catastrophic fires in southern California chaparral are far from natural, and he favors the current regime of widespread prescribed burning. "From a management perspective, my model provides a mechanism that may reduce catastrophic fires. Their method offers no management alternative," he says.

Keeley and Fotheringham counter that the answer is to reduce urban sprawl into wildlands, teach land p

Contact: Jon Keeley
Society for Conservation Biology

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