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Firefighters conduct a controlled burn to defend houses against flames from the Ranch Fire, part of the Mendocino Complex Fire, as it continues to spread Aug. 2, 2018, toward the town of Upper Lake, Calif.

There is news to note on the wildfire front, but before we get into the weeds, it's worth sharing a story that says something important about fire conditions throughout the West.

The New York Times reported about this particular story, which started last July in California when a rancher tried to plug an underground wasp nest in his backyard by hammering a metal stake into it. Sparks flew. 

One month later, the fire started by those sparks had destroyed more than 150 homes and had burned more than 410,203 acres of the state. The so-called Ranch Fire killed a firefighter who was struck by a falling tree. It became the largest fire in California state history.

The rancher's action wasn't negligent, not by a long shot: He went out of his way to try to douse it, but finally called 911. Less than an hour later, planes were dropping retardant on the fire, but to no avail.

But, as California fire officials told the Times this week, many other fires in that state (and elsewhere throughout the West) get started through actions that wouldn't qualify as negligent: A grandson helping his grandfather with a gasoline-powered weed eater; a driver towing a boat that lost a wheel and scraped the ground, triggering sparks; a worker welding a gate.

The Times report is timely, of course, especially after our recent stretch of scorching weather, which helped dry out grasses and other undergrowth. When they're dry enough, these grasses can ignite in a flash and can build into an inferno within minutes. (The career firefighter who oversaw the Ranch Fire told the Times that walking through a California meadow in summer was like walking through a pool of gasoline.)

With those kinds of conditions throughout our Western summers, wildfires are inevitable. Now, that doesn't mean that you shouldn't exercise caution when you're out and about in the woods.

But it also means that we need to adjust to what fire experts are terming the new normal throughout the West. In that light, a new study from Crystal Kolden, a University of Idaho researcher, is fascinating.

The study found that, despite years of scientific research pointing to prescribed or "controlled" burns as a successful method of clearing brush and restoring ecosystems, intentional fire-setting by federal agencies in the West has declined over the last 20 years. And federal money for controlled burns has been "drastically depleted" over the last two decades, the study found. 

The study did find that the amount of land burned each year across the nation increased by about 5%. But almost all of that increase occurred in the Southeast, a region that looks more favorably on the practice of controlled burns than we do in the West. Also, much of the increase in that region came thanks to state agencies and private landowners, not the federal government. 

In the West, we're skeptical about the use of prescribed fires. Controlled burns trigger worries about air quality. The geography of the West tends to be more inhospitable for controlled burns, with its remote, inaccessible areas.

"It's a difficult place to burn," said Cassandra Moseley, a University of Oregon professor who has studied wildfire management in the West. 

And there's this as well: As federal agencies devoted increasing resources to battling wildfires, that often leaves little money in the bank for prescribed burns. Congress finally has passed legislation that could ease this "fire borrowing" problem, in which money that had been budgeted for maintenance work that could have helped reduce the intensity of fires, is "borrowed" to help cover the costs of fighting fires. It's a vicious cycle.

But prescribed fires are among our best tools to help break that vicious cycle. It boils down to this: We can burn these lands now under controlled circumstances. Or we can watch them burn later in increasingly intense infernos. (mm) 

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