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Controlling Wildfires: Local Versus Global Solutions

Controlling Wildfires: Local versus Global Solutions


Montana’s wildfire season continues to develop slowly, but elsewhere in the American West, the wildfire season started early and violently.  By early June wildfires were raging across Colorado where the Black Forest fire burned 22 square miles and destroyed almost 500 homes, leaving two dead by mid-June. Then at the end of June, in Yarnell, Arizona, 19 “hotshot” firefighters died as a wildfire suddenly surrounded and trapped them.

Recently the West seems to have been doubly cursed by nature: Our wildfires are starting earlier, burning larger areas with higher intensity and lasting longer. Meanwhile beetle infestations are leading to the death of huge swaths of our forests, leaving millions of dead trees to ultimately tumble in crisscrossed heaps on the forest floor.

Of course, we know that these are not unrelated phenomena. Both have been triggered by climate change.  We no longer regularly have the extremely coal winter weather that kills the beetles. The beetles now have a much longer season and multiple generations to make the forests’ trees their temporary homes. Drought has also plagued much of the West while even those areas not in drought see the snow pack disappear earlier and our forested mountains dry out more quickly. In record high temperatures, our forests simmer, waiting for lighting or human stupidity to ignite them and ill-timed winds to whip them into a firestorm.

But fire is something humans have worked on controlling even since we began living on top of one another in urban settings. In general we have learned to successfully control fire in the urban areas where most of us live.

That success in urban settings leads us to look for human causes of our failure to act to control wildfires in natural areas.  If the current fire condition of our forests is more dangerous than it used to be, we look for human causes.  Our European folk heritage, with its worried concern about the safety of “wild areas”, well represented in the Grimm fairy tales we learned as children, suggests one possible source of the fires threatening our forests.  As the timber industry and some forest managers put it, it has been our failure to impose human order on the chaos of wild natural systems that creates the wildfire dangers we now face. If we had brought more of those forested lands under human management by roading, logging, and managed replanting of all of those forestlands, there would be much less fuel in those forests to burn.

From this point of view, it was our failure to more heavily log and thin our natural forests that is the source of current wildfire problems. If we had continued the heavy logging and thinning programs of the 1950s through the 1980s, unfettered by wilderness protection and other environmental constraints, we are told that our communities would not now be surrounded by forests with dangerous buildups of hazardous fuels that periodically burst into flames as a deadly firestorm that can overwhelm both firefighters and human settlements.

Looking across our forested landscapes from this perspective, one sees almost unlimited opportunities for expanded logging and the extension of a forest road system to support it, all in the name of removing hazardous forest fuels and making us safer. It is not surprising that logging interests push commercial logging as a solution to the threat of wildfire.

Despite the attempt to clothe this solution to our wildfire problems as a practical, common-sensical prescription, it is not supported by any forest or fire science.  It is built around the simplistic notion that since it is the trees in the forest that burn, removing the trees will stop the forest from burning. Even at the extreme where all trees are harvested, leaving no regeneration stock, we are faced with exactly what vegetation will replace the forest and how we will keep the grasslands, shrub lands, or scrub forests from growing in behind the cleared forest and themselves catching fire. Some of our most destructive fires in terms of loss of human life and structures have taken place in recently harvested forestlands. Some of our most difficult to control and deadly forest fires are in scrub lands of stunted trees or grass and shrub lands, or managed tree plantations, through all of which fires can roar at incredible speeds.

The cost of managing all of our forestlands to artificially control all of its potentially flammable vegetation would be astronomical. We would have to repeatedly enter all areas and remove vegetation from them every several years. This would have to be done across huge expanses of remote and mountainous landscapes where the costs would far exceed the value of the vegetation removed and transported away.

The truth is we cannot fireproof a forested landscape any more than we can flood-proof low-lying land along rivers and coasts. We can spend hundreds of billions trying to do so, but nature almost always has its way. We cannot afford that sort of planned stupidity.

Of course there is a more effective and much less costly way to protect human lives and property from wildfire. But it requires the opposite of the proposed landscape-wide logging proposed as a way to “fireproof” our forests. It, instead, requires us to focus on the already human dominated landscapes where most of us live, not distant wildlands, and reduce the likelihood of home ignition by more carefully managing the forests immediately around us and our own yards and structures. It also means reducing the drain on public resources trying to protect all homes, even those purposely built in dangerous locations, by shifting the cost of fire control in those areas to those who choose to build there.

One can already hear the howls of special interest groups insisting that economically irrational behavior in our forests has to continue to be subsidized no matter what the cost, because it is the only way to make natural forests safe. But despite the Grimm Brothers’ fairy tale depictions, wildlands and nature are not the enemy. It is human arrogance and ignorance that chooses to directly fight powerful natural forces rather than to recognize and respect natural systems and make practical, limited adjustments where people live.