It’s not news that wildfires raged across the western United States in 2021, and the year before, and the one before that. As fires continue to increase in size and severity, the U.S. Forest Service and other land management and fire agencies are ramping up their prescribed fire and fuel reduction activities to reduce fuel load and, hopefully, reduce fire severity.
In January, U.S. Agriculture Secretary Tom Vilsack, who oversees the USFS, released a 10-year strategy that sets a goal of “treating” 20 million acres of USFS lands and another 30 million acres of other federal lands. The treatments include prescribed fire, mechanical thinning of forests, and restoration of ecosystems to create more resilient and fire resistant environments.
Many of the high risk areas identified in the plan fall within the West, and more specifically within the Sierra Nevada range.
This week, This Is Reno joined firefighters from the Humboldt-Toiyabe National Forest to see how prescribed fire operations are conducted, and share the experience in this photo essay.
Planning for prescribed burning operations can take years, from conducting environmental reviews and gathering public comment to preparing the land. Once everything has been approved and, in this instance, burn piles are ready to light, forest officials have to wait for the right season when fire risk is low. Then, they wait for the right weather and atmospheric conditions to ensure smoke doesn’t get trapped low to the ground and wind doesn’t spread flame and embers beyond the burn area.
In recent weeks the USFS has been conducting prescribed fire activities in Dog Valley near Verdi. The area is considered an urban wildland interface, so reducing the fire fuels can help reduce threat to homes if a fire was to erupt in the area.
Christian Wooster, left, and Dylan Todd, right, are firefighters in the Humboldt-Toiyabe National Forest, which covers 6.3 million acres in Nevada and California and is the largest national forest outside of Alaska. The pair drive up to the burn location in Dog Valley in a tracked UTV. The road to the burn area is a rough dirt road, and due to distance and terrain the drive took around 30 minutes. The crew had to pack all of their supplies for the day, including drip torches, fuel, hand tools and other supplies, in the back of the UTV.
Wooster retrieves his pack as a pile of logs and debris burns behind him. Fresh snow from the previous night covered the ground and wood piles. The heat from the ignited pile was welcome as the temperature remained low.
Firefighter Ryan Bell surveys the scene as multiple piles of wood burn. The wood piles had sat for two seasons before crews were able to conduct the burn. Despite moisture from the snow many still took to burning. Through the work day weather would change from snowing to direct sunlight.
Todd starts a burn pile with his drip torch. Drip torches are widely used for prescribed fire and targeted burning to control wildfires because they are efficient. The tank holds a fuel mixture, often of gasoline and diesel, and has a long spout with a wick to create a spout of fire the user can carry alongside or behind them. The snowpack required firefighters to use more fuel to start the burns and often required being relighted multiple times throughout the day.
Todd and Wooster cross a stream though a fresh snow fall to access more burn piles. Getting cold or wet feet is a concern in the field and is avoided when possible. While less dangerous than a wildfire, other dangers in the field keep the crew vigilant.
Todd hikes through snow to more burn piles. The burn piles were created previously by a private contractor and left to dry. Depending on their location, some piles burned easily while others became difficult to light or keep lit. The crew had to continually check piles to monitor their condition and make sure they burned.
Wooster walks to another pile with his drip torch and Rhino hand tool. Usually, the Rhino is used to build fire lines during a wildfire, but was needed to remove snow and ice from wood piles. Cold temperatures caused the snow to freeze to equipment and clothing.
Wooster with his drip torch. The crew used fuel that was unusable in engines for their drip torches so it didn’t go to waste. Drip torches are widely used in wildland firefighting and prescribed fire when vegetation needs to be purposely burned away. Other tools used include shovels, Pulaskis, fire rakes and axes.
Wooster pulls snow and ice off a wood pile to access the wood below.
Bell and Wooster take a short break next to a burning wood pile. Heat from the pile melted the snow downwind from the flames and provided warmth for the firefighters. Smoke from other burn piles can be seen in the background. The crew would work on around 30 acres of land this day.
Todd checks on burning piles as he hikes back through the snow. Snow depths in the area ranged from a few inches to almost waist deep in places. While the snow meant that the piles could be burned without risking the spread of fire, it made the effort of getting to the piles and managing them tougher.
See more photos from the the Dog Valley prescribed fire work in the gallery below.
Ty O’Neil is a lifelong student of anthropology with two degrees in the arts. He is far more at home in the tear gas filled streets of war torn countries than he is relaxing at home. He has found a place at This Is Reno as a photojournalist. He hopes to someday be a conflict photojournalist covering wars and natural disasters abroad.