A Silver Lining of Smoke

Jan 8, 2016 - 4:15 pm

A Silver Lining of Smoke by Matt McCaw, Water Quality Protection Lands Biologist 

“The test of a first-rate intelligence is the ability to hold two opposed ideas in mind at the same time and still retain the ability to function.”  - F. Scott Fitzgerald

Prescribed burning is one of the most effective methods for restoring natural systems, but also one of the most challenging.  To meet management goals on the Water Quality Protection Lands, we need to burn, on average, about 1,600 acres a year, forever. From one perspective, we should be frustrated.  Equipment breaks.  The weather often doesn’t cooperate.  Resources can be hard to come by.  The politics can get dicey.  Suburban development increasingly constrains our ability to manage smoke effectively and year after year we come up short on acres.

But from another perspective - an historical one - we should be nothing but encouraged because in a way, every prescribed burn is its own little sociopolitical miracle. Only a few decades ago, the message was All Fire Is Bad.  Now fire departments promote Good Fire.  We tell thousands of people that the government is going to light the land near their homes on fire and the response is largely crickets.

Our partnerships are the best example of interagency cooperation I have ever seen - city, state, federal, and non-profit agencies working together under the same system to implement burns for the benefit of ecological and human communities. And why?  Why do all that hard work and take that mitigated, albeit very real, risk when it would be so easy - ever so easy - to do nothing instead?  Because people who care are following the science.  Let’s think about that.  Conscientious people working in seamless partnership to manage land following the best science.  That sounds like success.

This winter, we plan to implement prescribed burns on 722 acres.  If we complete even 500 acres, we’ll be thrilled.  If we don’t, we’ll be disappointed, but simultaneously amazed that we accomplished anything at all.