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‘We’re setting the rules’: A success story from a managed — not suppressed — California wildfire

Firefighters conduct prescribed burns along the perimeter of the Rabbit Fire near Hume Lake.
Nora Ratto
Hume Lake Ranger District, Sequoia National Forest
Firefighters conduct prescribed burns along the perimeter of the Rabbit Fire near Hume Lake.

HUME LAKE, CA - The U.S. Forest Service recently declared success after containing and managing a small wildfire in the Sequoia National Forest, rather than immediately extinguishing it.

Unlike bigger, more urgent wildfires, they allowed the Rabbit Fire to continue burning in a controlled manner and at a low intensity in the name of forest health and management.

“We wanted to utilize a managed fire instead of what we normally refer to as a contained fire, or just a full suppression wildfire,” said Robert Benik, a district fire management officer with the Sequoia National Forest.

The Rabbit Fire was touched off near Hume Lake by a lightning strike on Sept. 30. As with most wildfires, firefighting agencies deployed personnel and equipment to work on containing the blaze.

But the circumstances around this fire were different than those that occur at the peak of fire season during the hotter, drier summer months.

This time, the weather was cooling and the mountains had just been drenched a month earlier by tropical storm Hilary. The fire was smoldering in a remote area removed from human development, in a part of the forest that had become overgrown and under-managed.

“The vast majority of it had no fire history,” said Benik. “It was basically left excluded. They put out all the fires that happened in the area over the last 100 years.”

Fighting fire with fire

So, Benik said, the Forest Service viewed this as an opportunity to allow the fire to run its course, and to return a small part of the forest to its natural state of regular, low-intensity burns.

“A significant role of the Forest Service is to manage natural resources on public lands, and the Rabbit Fire response decision includes objectives that include improving and enhancing natural resources while managing naturally occurring wildfires,” readsan online summary of the blaze.

This doesn’t mean the fire was left uncontrolled.

According to Benik, managing the Rabbit Fire involved many of the same tools used for suppressing wildfires, but in a way that was more proactive than reactionary. For instance, firefighters mapped out a perimeter around the blaze, then constructed fire breaks, conducted prescribed burns and flew aerial operations to burn from the outside in.

“We put fire on the ground to remove the fuels around our perimeter…That gives us a buffer which actually prevents the fire from leaving or escaping from our control lines,” Benik said. “We’re kind of setting the rules, versus the fire setting the rules.”

The Rabbit Fire eventually reached about 2,800 acres in size and was fully contained within about a month.

Managing fires not always an option

When done right, managing wildfires can be positive for the land, Benik said—particularly the parts of the forest that have become overgrown, with too much material to burn.

“Everybody just wants to put out the fires. No fires. And the problem is that putting out fires is why we have the problem we have today,” Benik said.

But this kind of response isn’t possible with every blaze, Benik said.

In fact, fire managers in the Sequoia National Forest elect to manage wildfires in this way only every few years, depending on location, timing, weather forecasts, and the availability of firefighting personnel.

When managed fires do happen, however, Benik said they’re also opportunities for members of the public to observe. With a safe fire perimeter, it’s possible to close roads and warn of smoke impacts only as needed, without a widespread emergency.

“We don't have to evacuate a whole county to deal with a managed fire,” Benik said. “They can come out, see it, take pictures of it.”

Kerry Klein is an award-winning reporter whose coverage of public health, air pollution, drinking water access and wildfires in the San Joaquin Valley has been featured on NPR, KQED, Science Friday and Kaiser Health News. Her work has earned numerous regional Edward R. Murrow and Golden Mike Awards and has been recognized by the Association of Health Care Journalists and Society of Environmental Journalists. Her podcast Escape From Mammoth Pool was named a podcast “listeners couldn’t get enough of in 2021” by the radio aggregator NPR One.