Credit: Dennis Steers and the College of Engineering / Courtesy

With the recent wildfires in San Luis Obispo County, one professor at Cal Poly believes his research is the key to lessening the intensity of these fires.

Industrial engineering professor Puneet Agarwal has been researching the economic effects of prescribed burns for the last five years.

After watching the destruction of the deadly Camp Fire in 2018 as a graduate student, Agarwal knew something had to be done to reduce the devastation of these fires. 

Agarwal said that while the number of wildfires over the recent years has stayed constant, the size and area burned have actually increased. His findings conclude that more prescribed burns would lessen the intensity of the fires and lower the cost associated with fighting and cleaning up these wildfires.

Forestry departments have been using prescribed burns for many years to proactively burn the land and reduce the drive for future fires in the area.

Agarwal’s research also focuses on the potential budget states with high fire risk should set aside each year for prescribed burning, and how much money they could save by using this method. 

According to Agarwal’s research, 5 billion dollars would have been saved if California had done 170,000 more acres of prescribed burning. 

This includes the recent LizzieIC fire in SLO, which has burned 124 acres and is now 100% contained. Argarwal said although Cal Fire has been doing prescribed burns in the area, they have been very small. 

“If they would have proactively done prescribed fires to reduce the dry thrill, that would have helped,” Agarwal said.

Agarwal’s theory also focuses on how the relationship between private landowners and public agencies affects the ability of forestry departments such as Cal Fire to perform prescribed burns. 

However, an obstacle that Agarwal said he has run into is the public’s fear of wildfires. Most people are hesitant to purposely let their land burn because firefighters may not be able to control the fire. 

“I think we also need a lot of education and training in this field,” Agarwal said.

However, he said that this is a task for CalFire.