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Wildland Fire Deficit

During fire season, it has become the norm to see front-page images of apocalyptic wildfires. In 2021, the Dixie Fire – the second largest fire in California’s history - burned almost a million acres. In 2020, wildfires swept across 10 million acres in the western US, killing dozens, destroying 10,000 structures, and causing $15 billion in property damage. Thousands of firefighters risked their lives to fight the fires. The 2019-2020 fire season in Australia was a warning that the problem can worsen worldwide. Almost 50 million acres burned, driving some species to extinction, and emitting 300 million tons of CO2.


In a wildfire, it is the vegetation that burns. It is a bit counterintuitive, but a decades-long policy of wildfire suppression has created a wildland fire deficit that increases the risk of severe wildfires during fire season because of an accumulation of fuels. Putting these ecosystems back into balance requires important shifts in policies, as well as an expansion of the tool kit for carrying out safe and effective prescribed burns.


In January 2022, the USDA announced a 10-year strategy to confront the nation’s wildfire crisis. Proactive wildfire risk mitigation is at the heart of the strategy, which focuses on a plan to increase fuels and forest health treatments in the West by up to four times. Prescribed burns are an important fuel treatment approach because they mitigate the future risk of uncontrollable and highly destructive wildfires by reducing dangerous fuel loads. But these controlled fires are difficult to plan safely and execute at scale without new science and technology to help.



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