Wildfire season is around the corner in the Mountain West. Prescribed burns are just one way to reduce wildfire risk. That's because, in the right setting, they reduce built-up dry fuel in a controlled environment.
"That way, if a wildfire starts, the flames are a lot shorter. It gives firefighters a lot more options to safely fight that fire," said Sharon Hood, a research ecologist at the Missoula Fire Sciences Laboratory in Montana.
However, Hood said there are practical barriers to planned burns, like not enough funding. But while wildfires are unpredictable, Hood said you know exactly how long a prescribed burn will last and how much it will cost.
"It is much cheaper to have a prescribed burn than a wildfire. Wildfires can cost millions and millions of dollars," she explained.
Additionally, Hood said not everyone loves the idea of a prescribed burn, since it can raise concerns about air quality. But Hood said, "Depending on how we burn, we can produce a lot less smoke than a wildfire that is consuming a lot more fuels."
And in other practical terms, Hood said prescribed burns require specialized workers, and there aren't always enough of them to do it properly. Right now, the U.S. Forest Service is working to increase that capacity of workers.