Only Forest Fires Can Prevent Forest Fires? Some Fire Management History

The historic wildland fires in Colorado have me thinking about the history of wildfire management and how that management and the fact that the land isn’t as wild as it used to be have contributed to the fire.  NPR, which I love to cite because it’s about the only news I get these days, recently did a story outlining a little bit of the history.

Once upon a time, the government employed a policy of aggressive fire suppression.  In 1910, a blaze killed 79 firefighters, and so the US Forest Service decided to fight back.  The agency declared war on fire and decided that any burn should be snuffed out before their first shift ended or by ten in the morning (http://www.usfa.fema.gov/downloads/pdf/statistics/v1i3-508.pdf).

The Forest Service’s preemptive war was still lumbering along in the 1940s when the agency decided to reach out for help.  Whereas the military sent around our grizzled, old uncle to round up potential soldiers, the Forest Service enlisted a talking bear to combat its grizzly problem.  No, it wasn’t Ted.  Say hello to Smoky!

Times were different in the ’40s, though.  As NPR reports:

[F]ewer people lived between St. Louis and San Francisco. Now places like the Colorado foothills where the High Park fire is burning are full of roads and power lines, homes and vacation cabins. The federal government has made some headway in recent years thinning the forests. But that’s also brought unintended consequences.

As people build more things that can burn in fire-prone landscapes, more things burn in fire-prone landscapes.  Consequently, wildland-fire fighting has gotten more expensive.  According to Scientific American, “[u]rban sprawl, in particular, has fueled the bloated firefighting budget, since beating back fires near homes requires more pricey maneuvering.

Of course, people living in fire-prone landscapes isn’t the only factor contributing to out of control fires.  Again, NPR reports:

Research forester Mark Finney is with the Missoula Fire Lab in Montana, where federal scientists study wildfire behavior. He says most national forests today are full of dense, aging stands of trees, and in Colorado’s case, many of them are already dead from disease. Finney says natural, smaller fires should have been allowed to burn to clear out the forests.

In addition to disease, bark beetles have killed their share of trees too, literally adding more fuel to the fire.  These stresses “set the stage for more frequent and intense burns. And hotter fires from abundant fuel are scorching soils, which may fundamentally change the landscape.

Understandably, the government has adapted in light of the contemporary understanding of these fires and now lets many natural fires burn (http://www.usfa.fema.gov/downloads/pdf/statistics/v1i3-508.pdf).  The Forest Service says:

[S]cience has changed the way we think about wildland fire and the way we manage it. We still fight it, especially to protect communities and the resources people need—but we also use it to make forests and grasslands healthier and to protect communities and natural resources, especially clean, abundant water.

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