New guidelines help clear smoke on California wildfires

A couple of weeks ago I got a call from a reporter at the Redding Record Searchlight. He wanted my response to an agreement between the air quality regulators and the land management agencies that could spell relief for Californians inhaling smoke from forest fires. The Record Searchlight’s readership is pretty much the part of northern California that had 800,000 acres burn in 2008. Much of that burn occurred under conditions that funneled smoke right into the towns of northern California. So smoke is a big deal to the folks who read this newspaper.

Smoke is also a critical issue for the California Air Resources Board, U.S. Forest Service and National Park Service. The air resources board released a set of guidelines earlier this month that encourage fire managers and air quality officials to work together to plan how to manage wildfires in California. The plan unveiled in California is a good one, and one that could serve as a model for helping fire managers lessen the smoke burden for communities across the West.

The guidelines require fire officials to create smoke-management plans for fires larger than 10 acres, have daily discussions with local air-quality regulators and use fire suppression tactics that minimize smoke on days when weather conditions create air quality that threatens human health.

The guidelines will be easier to implement thanks to new technology. The newly adopted Wildland Fire Decision Support System (WFDSS) enables fire managers to access weather and fuels information from a laptop computer right on the hood of their pickup.

The guidelines build on the Federal Wildland Fire Management Policy and The National Cohesive Wildland Fire Strategy. These documents give wildland fire managers increased flexibility in dealing with both wildland fires and with regulatory agencies.

The old policy was to fight every fire on all fronts until it was contained. This is where the new agreement may improve fire management. The agencies can now fight a fire with all available resources when winds will push smoke into town. They can let the same fire burn freely when the atmosphere is allowing the smoke to vent away from human habitation. They can often do this in such a way that the fire burns brush and understory fuels, thus reducing the extent and severity of future fires.

This kind of cooperation between land management agencies and regulatory agencies has the best potential to get the right acres burned under the right conditions. This is great news for all of us who advocate for allowing fire to perform its natural role in clearing and revitalizing forests. It’s even better for people throughout the county who would like to see less smoke pouring across their back yards.