The thick scent of smoke hung in the midday air when a trail along the Kings River opened up to an ominous scene: flames in the trees and thick gray smoke shrouding canyon walls.
Firefighters were on the job. In fact, they had started the blaze that chewed through thick ferns, blackened downed trees and charred the forest floor. The prescribed burn — a low-intensity, closely managed fire — was intended to clear out undergrowth and protect the heart of Kings Canyon National Park from future wildfires that are growing larger and more frequent amid climate change.
The tactic is considered one of the best ways to prevent the kind of catastrophic destruction that has become common from wildfires, but its use falls woefully short of goals in the U.S. West. A study published in the journal Fire in April found prescribed burns on federal land in the last 20 years across the West has stayed level or fallen despite calls for more.
Prescribed fires are credited with making forests healthier and stopping or slowing the advance of some blazes.