Another destructive fire season has Western states searching for ways to prevent it. The Southeast just might have the answers: setting controlled fires before the wildfires come.



More than 60,000 people are being evacuated from their homes in California due to extreme wildfires. Yet another bad fire season has Western states considering new policies to prevent these disasters, and they're copying the region that's leading the nation in fire prevention efforts - the Southeast. NPR's Lauren Sommer reports.


LAUREN SOMMER, BYLINE: Back in May, Morgan Varner watched as flames crept along a forest floor.

MORGAN VARNER: We're burning in a shortleaf pine woodland. It burned about two years ago.

SOMMER: This fire was set on purpose. It's what's known as a prescribed fire. The idea is to clear out the brush and leaves so they don't build up and become the fuel for extreme fires.

VARNER: The hazard is very low. The risk is very low.

SOMMER: But this isn't California or Montana. Varner is in Tallahassee, Fla.

VARNER: The Southeast burns about almost three-quarters of all the prescribed burning in the U.S. annually. Florida is far and away the No. 1 state.

SOMMER: Varner is the director of fire research for Tall Timbers, a research station and land conservancy in Tallahassee. He says forests and woodlands in the West and South have a lot in common. Fire used to happen regularly.

VARNER: Before colonization, they were burned really frequently through lightning and the really high density of Native American populations.

SOMMER: Then came the era of fire suppression. Federal agencies like the Forest Service had mandates to extinguish all fires. Smokey Bear taught generations that fire was the enemy.


UNIDENTIFIED ACTOR: (As Smokey Bear) Only you...

SOMMER: But in the South, landowners found the forests were getting overgrown. So in 1990, Florida passed a law to encourage prescribed burns. It set up a certification training program for burn managers, also known as burn bosses. As long as the weather conditions are safe, getting a burn permit is quick.

VARNER: So it's a single permit, a single call. And, you know, in California or some other places, the approval for a fire starts not minutes, but months ahead of time.

SOMMER: The key thing, Varner says, is that burning has become part of the social fabric. Landowners encourage each other.

VARNER: There is a little bit of one-upmanship or one-upwomanship (ph) where they will talk about sort of, like, have you even burned your property lately? - you know, that sort of thing.

SOMMER: That's the model that Western states are starting to copy.

LENYA QUINN-DAVIDSON: We have this generational gap in fire knowledge in the Western U.S. that we're trying to rebuild now. But Florida and the Southeast still have it.

SOMMER: Lenya Quinn-Davidson is a fire adviser for the University of California Cooperative Extension. So far this year, Florida has done controlled burns on 45 times more land than California - mostly private land. In California, Quinn-Davidson says private landowners get little support.

QUINN-DAVIDSON: They are managing and taking care of the lands around our towns and communities. They're critical in this larger vision of California living with fire.

SOMMER: She says one big problem in California is liability. It's rare for a prescribed burn to get out of control, but it has happened. In the Southeast, burn bosses are protected from liability lawsuits unless they're grossly negligent.

QUINN-DAVIDSON: When I go out and burn, I have no liability protection. I'm assuming full responsibility for those projects, and most of the time we're doing those projects for public benefit.

SOMMER: California state legislators are now considering a bill that would provide some liability protection. Oregon and New Mexico passed similar laws this year. And all three states are setting up certification programs to get more burn bosses on the ground.

QUINN-DAVIDSON: That's how we're going to rebuild a fire culture in California - is letting people actually touch it and have a hands-on connection with it and to know that it doesn't all have to be bad.

SOMMER: Quinn-Davidson says it may take time to build that social license for fire again. Even now, the U.S. Forest Service stopped prescribed burning on federal land this month because the agency is overtaxed fighting extreme fires. But with smoke from catastrophic fires now clogging the skies for weeks, more and more Westerners are seeing controlled burns as part of the solution for the future.

Lauren Sommer, NPR News. Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.