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Firefighters Set Fires to Lessen Threat of Wildfires in US

In the western United States this year nearly four million hectares of land have been scorched by fire, in the worst wildfire season on record. Twenty-one firefighters have been killed and the flames have consumed millions of dollars worth of property. The U.S. Forest Service has resources available to fight fires as they break out, but the government agency also takes action to prevent fires and to lessen the impact of fires that do start. As VOA's Greg Flakus reports from Prescott, Arizona, that sometimes requires firefighters to set fires.

Clouds of smoke rising out of the forests around the city of Prescott may look ominous, but this is not a wildfire. This fire was set deliberately by the men whose job it is to prevent and fight fires.

The man in charge of this so-called "prescribed burn" is Prescott National Forest Firefighter Bob Travis. "The main objective here is to get fire back into its natural role in the ecosystem and reducing the fire hazard."

Travis says drought and an invasion of bark-eating beetles have combined to create tons of combustible material on the forest floor. This material could fuel destructive fires if it is not burned off under controlled conditions.

Travis says crews on a prescribed burn both set fires and confine them within specified lines of control. "We have people out here today that are igniting, doing lighting and then we have a large amount of people out here doing holding, making sure that is stays within those lines."

Bob Travis says such burns are only conducted when weather conditions are right, with little or no wind.

This is hard, dirty work carried out by the same men who face danger in fighting fires that get out of control. Local bicycle rider Nathan Wasserman sees them as heroes. "(They are) Just brave men, doing what other people would rather not be doing."

By maintaining the forests around the city, the firefighters protect the city of Prescott from danger. Like many other old western mining towns, Prescott suffered disastrous fires in its early days, when firefighting methods and technology were relatively primitive.

But the main danger today is for people who have built homes on hilltops outside the city or in areas close to the forest.

Homeowners in these areas clear brush from around their property to reduce potential fuel for wildfires and they rely on the Forest Service to do the rest.

The prospect of a prescribed fire getting out of control might worry some, but not John Pendergraft, whose house is tucked into the mountainside next to the forest.

"As far as I am concerned, the Forest department, it is a miracle we even have them, the way they do everything. They know what they are doing. I know there are cases of accidents, but they know what they are doing," says Pendergraft.

The Forest Service firefighters will carry out dozens of these operations in the weeks ahead to protect the trees and the people who live near them.