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How prescribed burns impact the local environment as fire season picks up

With wildfires consuming more land each year, fire experts say prevention, like controlled burns, is a top priority in preventing more destruction.

SAN DIEGO — California residents have seen wildfires grow all too common, especially over the last several years as they consume more land than ever before. Cal Fire and the California Department of Forestry and Fire Protection is stepping up efforts to prevent future wildfires with prescribed burns across the state -- including in San Diego County.

In the winter and spring, when fire season dies down, firefighters are busy ‘prescribing’ burns, also known as controlled burns -- to get the upper hand on the fire season to come. This often involves setting intentional, contained fires under weather conditions that won't allow the fires to spread out of control.

“We’re not naïve in thinking it's going to be the end-all, be-all answer and we're going to be able to walk away and be good," says Cal Fire Public Information Officer, Thomas Shoots. "We know the fires are going to continue to burn for these wind-driven fires. We want a chance to make a stand and protect life if a fire does burn through that area.”

With drought conditions worsening, the need is clear to remove dead and dry plants, brush, and weeds. These controlled, pre-planned burns make way for more fire-resistant plant life as well. The directive is even coming down from the state of California to direct more money and resources toward these burns as wildfires destroy animal and plant life in the millions of acres each year. By clearing acreage of dry brush, especially along fire routes or near rural environments, it makes it less likely that a fire will ravage or spread nearby.

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“We're trying now to do that, and we recognize that that requires efforts to do prescribed burns," said California Governor Gavin Newsom in a press conference last week. "It requires efforts to get mechanical equipment out into the forest to prepare for those prescribed burns.”

But do these prescribed burns inherently harm plants and wildlife? Experts say not as much as you might think. With the slower pace and smaller acreage of controlled burns, animals can clear out safely, unlike with fast-moving wildfires. Plus, with fires being a natural part of the cycle, some are surprised to hear these burns can help foster more growth.

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"Without fire, we're going to lose a lot of these plants that have evolved with fire and require fire in order to regenerate" added Dr. Deborah Landau, an ecologist with The Nature Conservancy. Firefighters go through extensive work alongside ecologists and archeologists to determine where it's safe to burn while still protecting indigenous plants and wildlife.

Over the last several months, Cal Fire had been prioritizing the administration of COVID-19 vaccines to communities. But as they respond to more fires, crews will need to head back out into the field more often. Sometimes even a small vegetative fire can trigger a large fire department response, simply because of how quickly these fires can spread and how devastating a rapid spread could be.

Fire researchers say to expect an already severe drought to worsen the fire outlook into the next year -- with fires starting earlier and burning more intensely. That’s why they say the focus should shift to prevention. Giving firefighters and residents near the flames a lasting chance at defending land when flames start.

“Our education is never going to stop; we’re always going to be out there beating that drum and making sure people understand the importance," said Cal Fire's Thomas Shoots.

WATCH RELATED: California Governor Newsom asks Californians to voluntarily cut water use amid deepening drought conditions