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The U.S. Forest Service is behind on prescribed burns in parts of California

RACHEL MARTIN, HOST:

California's wildfire season is getting longer and more destructive. The past two years were the worst on record. And because the U.S. Forest Service has failed to complete critical work, like prescribed burns that are meant to prevent fires, things could get worse, especially in the ski resort town of Big Bear, which is about a hundred miles east of LA. Caleigh Wells from member station KCRW reports.

CALEIGH WELLS, BYLINE: On the day I met up with Forest Service burn boss Christina Barba, she was supposed to be setting a prescribed fire to help clear out flammable brush in the San Bernardino National Forest. But she had to call it off. The weather made it too risky.

CHRISTINA BARBA: And therein lies the paradox of being a burn boss.

WELLS: Her job of setting safe, controllable fires is often too risky now because they could spread into major problems.

BARBA: It's like, you want to burn enough that it is meaningful, and you're improving large parts of the landscape, but then are we ever going to have the resources to do it?

WELLS: Barba says she should be burning 3,000 acres a year to protect Big Bear. This year, she burned just 20 acres. She says there's a saying in her line of work.

BARBA: You could always find a reason not to burn. And - yeah. Sorry. There's my cynicism again. I don't know...

WELLS: There's a long list of fire mitigation projects that have been proposed and then canceled. The list of obstacles is even longer. Let's start with the biggest one - climate change.

BARBA: Yeah, it's going to get hotter, but it also gets drier.

WELLS: And the window of opportunity for controlled burns shrinks. Barba had only 13 safe burn days last year, but most of those days, she still couldn't set a fire, which brings us to problem No. 2 - air quality. Big Bear shares an air basin with Los Angeles and the suburbs east, known as the Inland Empire.

BARBA: Because the Inland Empire has ozone or, some days, they have more particulates than they should, it shuts down burning in the entire basin.

WELLS: Barba lost 5 of her 13 burn days because of air pollution in the larger region. Then comes problem No. 3 - resources. Some days, she doesn't have the people or equipment to burn safely.

BARBA: There's been times where I've woken up in the morning, I've had my organization, and then I get a call from the fire management official, like, oh, you know, three of your engines got sent on a strike team for a fire. And then that is the end of that.

WELLS: And even on a perfect day, when the weather is right and the air is clear and the firefighters have nothing better to do, prescribed fires still burn up money. The San Bernardino National Forest would not disclose its budget after months of multiple asks and a Freedom of Information Act request. But Barba gives a hint.

BARBA: I think my house is worth more than the fuels budget this year.

WELLS: All those obstacles made for a close call earlier this month, when the Radford Fire forced some residents to flee their homes.

PATRICE DUNCAN: You live in a national forest, and this is one of the things you need to be able to deal with.

WELLS: Patrice Duncan spoke to me as she drove down the burning mountain.

DUNCAN: I've seen too many just horror stories of people being stuck trying to evacuate, waiting too long to evacuate. And I just didn't want to make the news that way.

WELLS: Luckily, there were enough firefighters and equipment to prevent any damage to town. And the remnants of Hurricane Kay brought helpful rain. But that luck might run out.

DUNCAN: As a resident, I can keep my pine needles, you know, picked up, and I can make sure my home is safe. But if the forest is coming at me because it wasn't, you know, managed well, there's not a whole lot I'm going to be able to do about it.

WELLS: There are still thousands of acres in Big Bear Valley ripe for the next wildfire, and a lot of the community still isn't ready.

For NPR News, I'm Caleigh Wells in Big Bear. Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.

Caleigh Wells