Wednesday: A small prescribed burn in Modoc County provided lessons on using good fires to fight bad ones.,


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James Brogan, a Modoc National Forest fuels technician, ignited a prescribed burn with a drip torch this month.Credit…Max Whittaker for The New York Times

Good morning.

The California landscape has been shaped by intentional fires for millenniums. What European settlers in the 19th century took as a “natural” habitat was the result of what fire experts say was the deliberate burning of millions of acres of forests and chaparral every year by Native tribes.

Now, after four years of particularly destructive fires, there is broad consensus among experts and government officials that California should embrace Indigenous traditions and the notion that “good” fire is crucial to preventing the destructive power of megafires.

But a prescribed burn last week in Modoc County, in the far northeastern corner of the state, underlines the difficulties of using fire as a forest management tool.

“You’re talking about dozens of people and thousands of hours of planning,” said Ken Sandusky, the public affairs officer for the Modoc National Forest. “You have objectors’ time, and litigation time. You could get into the tens of thousands of hours to get to the point where you are running chain saws and putting fire on the ground.”


A technician in the Modoc National Forest lights a prescribed burn.Credit…Max Whittaker for The New York Times

Before contact with Europeans, California tribes not only had thousands of years of burning tradition to guide them, but they also were free of the lawyers, paperwork, environmental impact assessments, and thicket of national and state regulations that forest managers face today.

Sandusky said the burn in Modoc last week, which covered 29 acres in the national forest, was possible only because of a decade of preparation that has allowed for several hundred acres to be burned a year. The controlled burn was done to protect the most vulnerable trees and clear out the fuels that create a more volatile fire.


The burn in Modoc last week covered 29 acres in the national forest.Credit…Max Whittaker for The New York Times

Prescribed burning across the state has been curtailed this year by the dry conditions that make fires more dangerous to manage and control. Fire experts pointed to the Palisades Fire in western Los Angeles in recent days as a measure of the drought-stricken California landscape.

“We used to burn into June fairly often when I first got to the Modoc,” said Mandi Shoaf, a fuels specialist in the Modoc National Forest who has worked in the area for more than a decade. “Now we are lucky to get a window late April, early May before fire season really kicks off.”


Firefighters conduct a readiness drill during the prescribed burn in the Modoc National Forest.Credit…Max Whittaker for The New York Times

Prescribed burns are often preceded by the mechanical removal of trees and brush. The wood is sold as boards or chips, helping to recover the cost of the operation. In Modoc, forest management helps preserve older Ponderosa pines, some of which are older than 200 years. The burning also promotes new growth, which serves as food for local elk and other wildlife.

Don Hankins, a fire expert who is working with California tribes to revive Indigenous burning practices, said caution and preparation were key to successful burns. The Cerro Grande Fire, a prescribed burn in New Mexico two decades ago that raged out of control and destroyed more than 200 homes, was a scarring experience for fire experts.

But Hankins and other experts argue that liability questions and bureaucracy have made prescribed burning too cumbersome in California.

“We overcomplicate things,” he said.


The aftermath of the prescribed burn in the Modoc National Forest last week.Credit…Max Whittaker for The New York Times

Here’s what else to know today

Compiled by Jonathan Wolfe

Riverside County disagrees with the state’s mask rules and wants to lift restrictions in most settings sooner than the rest of the state, The Press-Enterprise reports.

A new poll found that two out of three Californians support allowing some businesses to verify the vaccination status of customers, The Sacramento Bee reports.

Citizen, a neighborhood crime and safety app, falsely accused a man of starting a Los Angeles wildfire and set off a manhunt for the wrong person.

When it comes to drought preparedness in the state, CalMatters found a mixed bag: Wells are still being over pumped, but urban residents have been better about not wasting water.

In some areas of the state, drought conditions are so bad that farmers are choosing not to plant crops this season, Bloomberg reports.

The rapper T.I. and his wife, Tameka Harris, are under investigation by the L.A.P.D. after multiple women accused the couple of drugging and sexually assaulting them.

As the planet warms, ecologists in the National Park Service are adjusting their core mission of absolute conservation and are instead deciding what to safeguard — and what to let slip away.

The Guardian examined the deadly toll of California’s “ghost guns,” homemade weapons that are untraceable and coveted in many vulnerable communities.

A state regulator is reviewing whether Tesla violated regulations by falsely promising that its car-driving technology was “full self-driving,” Reuters reports.

The Mercury News looked at the most popular baby names in the state. At the top of the list: Olivia for girls and Noah for boys.

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