Why do we need prescribed fires?

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ALBUQUERQUE, N.M. – Prescribed fires will likely be a hot topic for years to come, especially after what happened with the Calf Canyon/Hermits Peak Fire.

But wildland experts say they’re still necessary and that’s why a team at Los Alamos National Labs is working to make the technicalities of the burns, a lot easier and more precise. 

Around 70% of the world’s ecosystems are affected by fire in some way and of that, about half are fire-dependent ecosystems.

“Taking fire out of that ecosystem would be like taking rain out of a rainforest, you’d no longer have that ecosystem,” said Adam Atchley, hydrologist.

Prescribed fire is one method used to reduce wildland fires or high severity fires across a landscape by reducing the density of the vegetation, but is it effective?

“The answer is yes when done safely. It’s very effective at stopping high severity wildland fire and it gives an opportunity space for wildland firefighters to actively attack a high severity wildfire and stop it,” said Atchley.

An example of an effective prescribed burn in New Mexico is the prescribed fire treatment over the Sangre De Cristo Mountains several years ago.  Afterwards, there was the Medio Fire in August 2020.

“It burned south into that prescribed fire and that Medio Fire was stopped dead in its tracks when it hit that prescribed fire treatment,” Atchley said.  

It cost about $3 million to fight the Medio Fire. The prescribed burn cost about $30,000.

Crews at Los Alamos National Lab are developing two different fire behavior models, the Firetec model accounts for all types of physics that have to do with fire behavior. 

“It solves complicated equations that gets at how does wind move through the forest canopy, how does that interact with the atmosphere and fire behavior,” said Atchley.

The other model is called Quic-fire, which takes the math of it all from super-computer straight to a computer in the field on a laptop.