As someone who works in prescribed fire, I always have my ear to the ground as far as public perception of burning goes. It’s an important factor: knowing how to manage PR before, during, and after a fire can drastically affect the public’s interest in burning, their willingness to allow burning to occur, and can even end up affecting a burn program’s very existence. People are as intrigued as they are scared by fire, and it can often be difficult to convince those who don’t understand prescribed fire of it’s importance in ecological restoration work. When they first learn that we’re intentionally starting fires, they can be concerned, fearful, and occasionally will get very angry. With all the mis-information on the internet, it is frustratingly easy for people to read one phony article and immediately become enraged with Rx burns.
Luckily, more people are becoming properly informed rather than misinformed about fire. Every week I see new initiatives to spread the use of fire in the west, new public classes on prescribed fire, and tons of articles simply and effectively explaining why we light fires to fight fires. A shift is happening, undoubtedly spurred by the increase in wildfire frequency and intensity, and it marks a turning point for the public’s perception of Rx burning. Even a decade ago, a burn boss I’m friends with told me she was told by some of her higher ups to stop burning, citing concern about the potential negative impacts. In the years since, she’s seen more burns than ever before on the installation she manages, to great effect. With more evidence of the positive impacts of burning comes more desire and impetus to burn. Awareness truly is the most powerful tool we have to spread fire far and wide.
It’s still an uphill battle. Funding for natural resources management programs are slashed every day. Fires still rage in the west and across the globe. Many people still fully subscribe to Smokey the Bear’s zero tolerance policy on fire. But there’s a shift happening. Slowly and steadily, people in America, Australia, Greece, Sweden, everywhere, are beginning to realize that land management is about more than maintaining pristine environments free from disturbance. Sometimes you need nature to be what it is: messy, violent, uncontrollable, beautiful. Burning is an integral piece of nature that must be preserved and help up with everything we have. It’s truly exciting to see the public at large finally start to understand that.