The history of fire policy in the United States has, for quite a long time, been very simple: Get the wet stuff on the red stuff. Fire bad, trees pretty, property is even better. Despite this long-standing policy, forest fires in the United States are getting a lot worse, in terms of intensity, number of acres burned, and damages. For a while it seemed like every year was a ‘bad fire season’ as millions of acres across the West burned. Now this is beginning to feel standard. Clearly, the US Forest Service is doing something deeply wrong.
Research on fire management pretty demonstrably proves this. Prior to the development of suppressive fire management, fires burned quite often across the United States, but they flared briefly and they burned relatively cool. Lightning strikes, sparks from fires, whatever the source, a fire would whip through the woods, consume dry vegetation, and then die down again, often leaving many of the trees intact. The earth was greatly enriched by deposits of ash and organic material, the clearing of debris made way for new growth and promoted animal habitat, and plants dependent on heat for germination sprouted, growing up in the wake of the fire and drawing upon that newly enriched earth for nutrients. Fire is not inherently destructive.
In fact, many people believed this and pointed it out even at the start of fire suppression policies in the United States. People living on the land, including colonists and indigenous people, argued that the history of the land clearly demonstrated that periodic small fires were beneficial and should be allowed to burn, rather than being put out. That, in fact, controlled burns should be part of fire policy. Their arguments went ignored by fear-mongering policymakers.
Controlled fire management was practiced by many indigenous people in the Americas, particularly in South America, where there is evidence that managed burns have been occurring for thousands of years. Clearly, indigenous residents did not fear and hate fire. They saw it as a useful tool and promoted it when appropriate for the habitat and the environment. That enriching effect on soils was noted, and cultivated through fire. Many stretches of ‘pristine’ rainforest are actually the result of very careful and dedicated stewardship, practiced slowly and sustainably, and this can be destroyed in a matter of hours with a clearcut slash and burn.
Several issues play a role in the problem with forest fires in the United States, and forest density caused by our fire management tactics is a big one. When forest fires are not allowed to burn naturally at a low level, it contributes to a significant buildup of materials on the forest floor. Seedlings grow into saplings grow into trees, creating a dense, crowded forest canopy. Brush grows high, creating a tangle of highly flammable branches, especially in regions with high amounts of chaparral, found across much of the west. When that brush dies back, the dead branches stay there in the form of dry tinder, littering the forest floor and creating an increasingly thick bed of highly flammable material.
When a spark strikes, the flames start burning quickly, and they start burning hot. Hellish firestorms like that seen in 1910 that burn everything indiscriminately are not uncommon. As the material burns hotter and hotter, the fire leaps the trees, up into the canopy, and spreads rapidly, carried by hot winds that only increase as the fire burns hotter. The fire itself creates the heat and wind it needs to spread, and everywhere it goes, it finds more fuel to burn still hotter, blazing through woodlands and happily hopping over to human communities, if they’re there. The fact that many humans want to live near wilderness areas means that the fire has ample homes to choose from.
The insistence on suppression creates extremely dangerous situations, because instead of periodically clearing out dead growth, small fires are stamped out. Larger fires cannot be eliminated, and thus burn and burn until they run out of fuel. Programmes to reduce fire risks often focus on topics like tree thinning, when the real issue is buildups of debris on the forest floor. Taking out some small trees won’t fix the problem, because they aren’t the problem. As the NRDC points out in the report I linked above, the logging industry is a big fan of thinning for forest management, because it means they can selectively harvest commercially valuable trees in otherwise protected areas, all in the name of environmental protection, and make a tidy profit on those sales. It’s even better than salvage logging.
Failure to implement sustainable, beneficial, reasonable fire policy lies very much at the feet of the politicians and administrators who promote nonsensical fire policy in the United States. Evidence-based fire policy would promote controlled burns, which are starting to gain prominence in some areas, but not enough. It would put a stop to suppressive fire policies, and focus on containment and control of small fires to protect health and safety, without actively putting them out. It would focus on removal of brush and other debris that could pose a fire hazard, removing fuel from the forest floor. And, of course, it would promote more fire safety around homes and other structures, like clearing ground to limit fire risks and using fire-resistant roofing and cladding, which is one thing some communities are starting to do very well.
Panic plays a significant role in US fire policy. Until we can eliminate fear-based approaches to fire management, we are going to be dealing with increasingly vicious and terrifying forest fires. We are creating our own firestorm and have only the policymakers, not nature, to blame for the significant loss of life, property, and usable acreage that seems to occur every fire season, these days.