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Prescribed fire : influences on community support and management activities in northern California
Though the need for prescribed fire in forests and rangelands is widely recognized, its use remains subject to a range of constraints, from operational to social. Efforts have been made to identify these constraints, as their characterization may be critical to the expansion of prescribed fire activities. Past research has focused on management perspectives and public attitudes, as both influence the character and extent of regional prescribed fire use, yet little research has explored both contexts simultaneously. This study examined constraints on prescribed fire activities in northern California using a regional survey of prescribed fire managers and a qualitative study of landowners in a forest community. The survey included all district-level managers from six federal and state agencies and several tribes, NGOs, and timber companies. The survey was completed in spring 2009 with a response rate of 92% among agency managers (N=51) and 84% among all surveyed (N=70). On average, 51,680 acres (20,914 hectares) were treated with prescribed fire each year between 2006 and 2008. This area represents 0.4% of the total managed area included in the study and 38% of the area needed to fulfill objectives of the region’s prescribed fire programs. On a scale of 1-10 (1, not limiting – 10, extremely limiting), narrow burn window (average rating: 8.2), regulations (7.2), lack of adequate personnel (6.2), and environmental laws (6.1) were identified as the most important constraints on prescribed fire activity. Insurance limitations (3.5), preference for alternative strategies (4.3), and public opinion (4.6) were identified as least limiting. The qualitative study consisted of open-ended interviews with 25 Hayfork-area landowners representing almost 4,000 acres in 18 distinct ownerships. Landowner support for prescribed fire, though widespread, was highly conditional. Trust was the most important influence on support, related to perceptions of agency incompetence, past timber and wildfire management, and disregard for local knowledge. Public opinion was not identified by managers as a major constraint on prescribed fire activity in northern California, yet this and past research have documented increasing frustration within forest communities over a lack of public involvement in decision-making around fire and fuels management. Given the conditionality of community support for prescribed fire and the growing frustration by which support may be diluted, the enhancement of public opinion and trust may be more critical to the success of prescribed fire programs than managers indicated.