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Study: Prescribed burning can reduce wildfire smoke exposure, health impacts

 A firefighter uses what's known as a Terra Torch on a 2022 prescribed fire in northwestern Utah.
Austin Catlin
Idaho Falls District BLM
A firefighter uses what's known as a Terra Torch on a 2022 prescribed fire in northwestern Utah.

Prescribed fires can be an effective way to reduce the risk of severe wildfires. But they of course also give off smoke, and researchers are trying to better understand the public health tradeoffs.

Scientists have a “decent understanding” of some of the health impacts of wildfire smoke, said Claire Schollaert, a postdoctoral scholar at UCLA’s Fielding School of Public Health. She is also the lead author of a recent paper published in the journal Nature Sustainability that tried to calculate the potential smoke exposures from forest management plans in California’s Central Sierra mountains.

“But we do not have a great grasp on the health effects of prescribed burn-specific smoke exposures and how those compare to those from wildfire smoke,” she said.

The researchers looked at six management scenarios, two of which – minimal management and “business as usual” – featured no prescribed fire and less fuel thinning than the other four. Wildfire smoke pollution from those two scenarios was the “greatest,” the paper found.

Of the remaining four scenarios, Schollaert said “there are potential health co-benefits of forest management in terms of thinking about overall smoke exposure, but perhaps diminishing public health returns is the amount of prescribed burnings really ramped up.”

But even the scenario with the most prescribed fires was predicted toproduce less smoke than the two with no prescribed fire.

“If we do even less management than we do now, things get worse, from a smoke perspective, Schollaert said.

The results are specific to the study’s California landscape, but she hopes the framework could be applied across the West.

“The better we can understand the specific impacts that planned fuel treatments will have on smoke and surrounding communities, the better we can prepare to protect them,” Schollaert said.

This story was produced by the Mountain West News Bureau, a collaboration between Wyoming Public Media, Nevada Public Radio, Boise State Public Radio in Idaho, KUNR in Nevada, KUNC in Colorado and KANW in New Mexico, with support from affiliate stations across the region. Funding for the Mountain West News Bureau is provided in part by the Corporation for Public Broadcasting.

Hey everyone! I’m Murphy Woodhouse, Boise State Public Radio’s Mountain West News Bureau reporter.