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Researchers Say Wildfires Must Be Allowed To Burn As California's Forests Filled With Excess Fuels

SACRAMENTO (CBS13) — The rising heat and dry conditions are leading to concerns about fire danger and have sparked a new call for a shifting strategy.

Researchers say California's wildfire season has been getting worse with the numbers of acres burned nearing levels not seen since before the 1800s.

Just more than 9,900 wildfires burned about 4.3 million acres in 2020—that's more than twice the previous record. And now, some experts say when it comes to forest fires, it's time to let them burn.

For more than a century, forest management has centered around suppressing fire and limiting "areas burned," but a new UC Davis study says that has to change.

"We know what's going to happen. The last five years have made it really clear that all of our investments in reducing burned area aren't really doing a whole lot of good," Hugh Safford said.

Safford was part of the study. He says the majority of forest fires are put out before they reach 200 acres.

"That's what we call fire suppression," he said. "That's been the law of the land for the past 100-120 years."

The study says that this approach allows fire fuel like leaves and grass to accumulate and make a catastrophic fire more likely. Researchers argue the focus should be on limiting the severity of fires and damage to people and property

That means a shift in strategies: to allow more forest fires to burn.

"That's what I'm saying. Absolutely, under the right circumstances," Safford said.

Controlled burns are already part of the solution, but according to the study, they're not enough.

"We've got to get to the point where we're burning hundreds of thousands of acres a year, and right now, the agencies aren't ready for it," Safford said.

Safford says 60-80% of California's forest land has excess fuel due to centuries of fire suppression. He warns if that fuel isn't allowed to burn a little, it's highly likely it will burn a lot.

"Are we just going to give up on the forest in those places?" he said. "And I think the answer is we can't."

When, where and how long to let forest fires burn depends on the climate, the ecology of the burn areas and how close they are to populated areas.

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