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CARROLL: Burning really is better

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A recent forest fire study called “Mokelumne Watershed Avoided Cost Analysis” looked at the costs and benefits of reducing the risk of high-severity forest fires through proactive techniques, such as thinning and controlled burns. Scientists looked at fires in forests that were managed, thinned, logged and otherwise taken care of, and forests left to their own devices.

Tah-dah! To no one’s surprise, “active forest management can save up to three times the cost of future wildfire[s] and reduce high-severity fire by up to 75 percent.”

The report comes a year after the end of a 40-year study by Los Alamos National Laboratories. Our nuclear scientists reached the same conclusions, first in 1977, and then finally in 2013.

We can do stuff to save ourselves, our trees and our homes, but only if we do something -- in advance -- before the fires come. So we now have enough data to fill the Library of Congress that managed forests are healthier than unmanaged forests. So what.

It’s like brushing our teeth and not getting cavities. It’s like wearing seat belts and living through car wrecks. It’s like not drinking and driving, following the Ten Commandments, and listening to mom.

On the other hand, it isn’t like any of these things. Everyone involved in woods work is so busy helping people with dead trees we can hardly find a free minute. We share information, observations, and equipment.

Alan Aker at has a special log truck modified to carry lots of pine tree slash. It’s busy all the time. Why? Because people would rather just get the slash out of the forest than burn it. People fear fire -- even good fire.

The best way to manage our problem of too many small trees, according to Penn State forestry professor Mark McDill, a former Custer resident, is start lots of fires all over the place every fall, just before the snow flies, and every spring, just before the green up.

We also need to burn like crazy in winter at the first sign of two inches of snow. We should light the 40,000 slash piles that result from logging and fuel reduction projects. We should burn our yards, our lawns (like my dad did every year), our neighborhoods (where we can), and do it when conditions are right, not in the middle of fire season.

We are logging like carpenter ants, and we need to do more. Ironically, it’s still too wet to get all the logs out of the woods. We’ll do it, but it’s painfully slow.

Burning on purpose is probably not a realistic big-picture solution in the Black Hills. But we can do something, and we are. We can take care of our own little piece of the forest to the best of our ability, and hope our neighbors do the same.

It would help if county commissions would take action to pass ordinances requiring homeowners to build fire-safe homes in managed forests. It would be a great start, climate change or no climate change.

Frank Carroll's website is Write to him at The opinions expressed by this freelance columnist are his own and do not necessarily reflect the views of the Rapid City Journal.

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