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To Control Wildfires, Western Officials Are Urged To Follow South's Lead


In the American West, wildfires are growing bigger and more intense as the climate warms. There is a push to prevent them by setting smaller fires on purpose. As Grant Blankenship of Georgia Public Broadcasting explains, that's a technique the South has been using for years.

GRANT BLANKENSHIP, BYLINE: I'm standing in a grassy valley in the low mountains of west Georgia. Smoke is rising from the trees on the ridge, and a helicopter is raining fire from the sky.


BLANKENSHIP: It's dropping thousands of little incendiary devices. They look like pingpong balls. When they hit the ground, they ignite and spread more flame.


BLANKENSHIP: Then at just the right moment, two firefighters on ATVs with flamethrowers set fire to the grass at the edge of the road, robbing the main blaze of fuel and stopping it dead.


BLANKENSHIP: This 900-acre fire stayed low to the ground, out of tree canopies, and after about 15 minutes, all that's really left to do is clean up just as Nathan Klaus promised when he briefed the fire crew earlier in the morning.

NATHAN KLAUS: This probably never - hopefully never going to go without fire again. And it certainly won't be at the risk that it was for a wildfire.

BLANKENSHIP: When he isn't the burn boss, Klaus is an ornithologist with the Georgia Department of Natural Resources. The DNR has been burning these woods for 17 years. Now there's no more duff or kindling for wildfire on the forest floor. That's the kind of stuff that contributes to the massive wildfires in the West. Plus the Bachman's Sparrow, a bird that's been missing here since the 1960s, it's been coming back.

KLAUS: We've got bobwhite quail. We're hoping for northern pine snake.

BLANKENSHIP: Every year, Georgia intentionally burns around a million acres of forest. That's close to 30 times the size of California's prescribed burns. That's according to data from the National Interagency Fire Center and compiled by the nonprofit Climate Central. So why does the South burn so much more of its forests? In part, that has to do with who owns the trees.

WALKER RIVERS: This is my 40th season of performing prescribed burns.

BLANKENSHIP: That's Walker Rivers. He's a consulting forester, a fire freelancer. He's showing me a plot he's been burning for its owner since 1995. It's tall pines, low grasses and blackberries. Those are for the turkeys.

RIVERS: They love blackberries.

BLANKENSHIP: Oh, turkeys do?

RIVERS: Oh, yes.

BLANKENSHIP: And the owners love hunting as much as they love selling pine trees. According to the Georgia Forestry Commission, 90% of the state's forests are privately owned. Trees are family wealth in the South. When a plot of pine trees matures about once a generation, a family will cut them and cash in. But the slow-growing knotty hardwoods crowd out the pines, so they get burnt out along the way. Rivers says out West where the federal government owns most of the land, there isn't the same profit motive to burn out the wildfire kindling. And there are other challenges, too.

RIVERS: They need to be doing prescribed burning. They need to be managing the fuel. But they don't do it. It's hands off. So you see the results of that.

BLANKENSHIP: In the Pacific Northwest, the results have been decades of wildfire fuel piling up largely unchecked in the region's forests. That's the major finding of a new study by Ryan Haugo of the Nature Conservancy and others. And Haugo says climate change will only make Western wildfires more destructive in the future.

RYAN HAUGO: Yes, that's definitely a concern of ours that with repeated or with large, extensive, high-severity fire, some areas that are forest now will no longer be forest in the future.

BLANKENSHIP: Haugo says grasses could take over where today ponderosa pines stand. To prevent that, he says, Western states need to find a way to make controlled burning as routine and common as it is in the South. For NPR News, I'm Grant Blankenship in Macon, Ga. Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.

Grant came to public media after a career spent in newspaper photojournalism. As an all platform journalist he seeks to wed the values of public radio storytelling and the best of photojournalism online.