Navigating the Public Perception of Prescribed Fires in California

Written By: Johanna Flashman

If you search the web for “California” and “prescribed fires,” most of what you’ll find is positive. There are authoritative .gov resources that define prescribed burning, explain the purpose, and provide current fire information. There are also others online asking why California isn’t using more prescribed fire, alongside positive press and research articles about the benefits of prescribed fire.

All of this translates to an overwhelmingly positive attitude towards prescribed fires among most of the public in California. Stanislaus National Forest’s public affairs officer Benjamin Cossel and California Department of Public Health research scientist Sumi Hoshiko note from their experience and research that most locals in areas with significant prescribed fire—Mariposa, Tuolumne, El Dorado, and Nevada Counties, namely—are largely happy about this approach.

“Everybody who lives in Sonora and Long Barn and Strawberry and Pine Crest, they fully understand [prescribed burning] and they want us to do it,” Cossel said. “In fact, they wish we’d do it more.”

In 2023, Stanislaus National Forest burned approximately 7,500 acres through the Stanislaus Landscape Project, focusing on complex burn areas near communities at high risk for wildfire. During the largest burn times, Cossel explains they “had an army of public information officers every single day” out in the community talking with local schools, business owners, and homeowners. With these complex acres taken care of, the project expects to increase that acreage in coming years with the entire project covering more than 300,000 acres.

Two wildland Firefighters with an engine igniting a prescribed burn in grassland.

While there’s a lot of good news about public support for burning in California, there’s still room for improvement—and an opportunity for California to set a precedent that other Western states can look to as they garner more public support for their own fuels treatment projects. Still, even in California, there are some important perception issues that both Hoshiko and Cossel identified, as well as some strategies to work towards improving those perceptions. 

CWI has previously explored how individuals can spark larger community and policy changes through a concentric circles of resilience framework. With a negative public perception, this same framework can lead to stagnation, backlash, and lost progress in creating more resilient and healthy forests and communities. Public perception and support of prescribed fire is a critical and occasionally overlooked piece of the larger forest resilience puzzle.

Smoke Hazards from Prescribed Burns

“[The smoke resulting from burning] is probably the number one complaint and that’s probably our top focus going into 2024,” Cossel said. “How do we communicate effectively about things people can do to mitigate their smoke hazards as well as why the work that we’re doing is important?”

Hoshiko’s research shows similar findings. While the smoke from prescribed fire is far less of a hazard than wildfire smoke, it’s still creating some negative health impacts—particularly for vulnerable populations—like triggering asthma and exacerbating chronic illnesses. 

Despite the ongoing challenges of smoke in the pursuit of increasing prescribed fire initiatives, there is a clear understanding that the solution isn’t to reduce prescribed fires. Instead, we can increase available information and resources to help people protect themselves from prescribed fire smoke. 

Since Hoshiko’s research study was published in January 2023, Cossel says the Stanislaus NF has been taking it to heart. The team has been implementing strategies like finding grant money for projects like converting resiliency centers into clean air shelters and working with companies to donate box fans and filters so folks can make DIY air filters in their homes. 

“Beyond just being professionals and doing our job right when it comes to prescribed fire, what is going to cause the Forest Service to lose the public support is the surveillance of smoke,” says Cossel.

Fear and Emotional Trauma from Wildfire

Wildfires leave more than just physical scars on a community, as experiencing a wildfire can be a traumatic event. Hoshiko’s listening sessions showed that many who live in the Sierra foothills have an understandable fear when they see smoke or fire around.

One participant quote from the full listening session report reads: “There is trauma. Now, whenever I see a burn of any size, I call to see if we need to act.”

Cossel said that one of the solutions his team has explored is working to provide mental health resources for those who have experienced a wildfire event.

“Not just letting them know that it’s smoke from a prescribed fire, you’re okay, but providing some of those mental health resources to talk through what they’re experiencing in that moment,” says Cossel.

Misunderstandings, Misinformation, and Distrust

In the survey Hoshiko’s team conducted of a Medically Vulnerable Adult Population in Mariposa County, they found there was strong support for prescribed fires but there were also misunderstandings about the practice. “Some of this came out in qualitative comments, like, ‘[prescribed fire is] very important to do, but not in Mariposa County.’ Or ‘Why did they do it on a windy day?’”

These quotes show how misunderstandings and misinformation about prescribed fires are still lurking in our collective knowledge. To add another layer of complexity, prescribed fires that have grown beyond control lines—in some rare cases causing catastrophic impacts in neighboring communities—have understandably caused many landowners to be less trusting of those managing burns.

“Especially in rural communities, there’s an inherent distrust of the federal government and [we’re] working through those issues and those inaccuracies,” Cossel said. 

The simple answer to misinformation and distrust is transparency and providing accurate and timely information for landowners and community members. In practice, that’s not so easy. Solving this issue won’t be just one solution, but should rather be a collective, overarching goal of the broader fire resilience community. 

“Especially in the listening sessions, everyone felt that more education would help,” says Hoshiko. “People want to know why this is being done. They want to have advanced knowledge. They want to be notified.”

Hoshiko also found that people expressed a need for alternative communications for prescribed fire notifications like direct phone calls or text messages because many areas lack quality internet.

Urban Outdoor Recreation Visitors

While much of the research and on-the-ground communication experience we’ve addressed so far has come from communities close to forests, it excludes an essential piece of the puzzle: the visitors from large urban sprawls like the San Francisco Bay Area coming to recreate in National Forests. Cossel has found this group to be the most challenging not only to reach, but to develop a positive relationship with.

“Our folks from our more urban areas don’t understand quite as well,” says Cossel. “So I would say they’re not as supportive, especially with the resulting smoke.”

While Cossel can easily communicate with local communities by visiting in person and conducting other localized outreach, reaching the larger urban populations has been more challenging to coordinate. 

“There are Forest Service policies that don’t allow a forest unit to go directly to larger media markets,” explains Cossel. “Going into those larger markets requires a lot more coordination and work and anytime you add layers of approval onto a federal project, you add layers of complication.”

So far, Cossel says he hasn’t found any success with reaching this larger audience, though he pins this largely on the policies and layers of approval he has to go through first and is aiming to work on this. 

In the meantime, further education on prescribed fires could also come from organizations like CWI through projects like the Intentional Fire Website and the Wildfire Resilience Initiative Planning and Learning Exchange.

While California’s increase in prescribed fires has been met with approval from the general public, addressing common pain points will play a critical role in how we move forward and improve. Thanks to the research that experts like Hoshiko and Cossel have done to understand community concerns—such as smoke, fear, misinformation, and reaching urban populations—California has an opportunity to address this apprehension, continue to educate the public, and implement solutions that benefit everyone involved.

Additional Resources