The summer wildfire season is drawing to an end, but the West is still burning. And despite a plethora of ecological research that demonstrates the value of fire as an ecological and evolutionary force, land-management agencies continue to suppress fires, except in a few wilderness areas or other reserves. Not only is such a policy ecologically bankrupt, it is a waste of tax dollars as well.
Fueling our fire-suppression
myopia are popular misconceptions about the effectiveness of fire
suppression. Research has shown that most fires burn themselves out
without charring more than a few acres. In other words, nearly all
fire suppression is a waste of time and money. If we do nothing at
all, most fires will fizzle out on their own, affecting a very
small amount of the landscape.
controlled more by weather conditions or terrain than by human
efforts. How often do we read or hear in the media how fire crews
"finally contained the fire when it began to rain" or it reached a
fire-break created by a river or rocky ridgeline. Nature squelches
the flames - and we take the credit.
other hand, when climatic conditions are "ripe" for a large blaze -
a condition that doesn't happen very frequently - big fires are
unstoppable. Severe drought coupled with high winds and low
humidity make for large fires. Since these climatic conditions
occur at irregular and widely spaced intervals, we fail to
recognize how much they contribute to what we call "catastrophic"
fires. Yet such large fires are the major ecological force shaping
most forest and range ecosystems in the West.
Even if we could stop fires, it is reasonable to ask why do it in
the first place. Most of the timber in the West can't be logged
without government subsidies. Steep slopes, small tree size, slow
growth and other factors make timber production on most public
lands unprofitable. Nor does the $1.35 per AUM we get from ranchers
for grazing public lands warrant spending millions of dollars to
"save" grasslands from flames. So what if millions of acres of
trees and grass burn up? What are we saving the trees or grass for?
So we can lose more money selling them to timber companies and
ranchers at a loss?
Our current view of fire is
not that different from society's perception of wolves in the
recent past. Fortunately, our collective ignorance of the
ecological value of wolves has changed, but as yet, we haven't made
such a collective transition in our views of
Reports in the media reinforce negative
views. Fires are nearly always described using rhetoric once
reserved for the "ruthless and bloodthirsty" wolf in the
not-too-distant past. We "battle" fires that are "destroying"
thousands of acres of forest and range. And some suggest that
Yellowstone is "recovering" from the "catastrophic" fires of 1988.
Yet ecologically speaking, blazes don't "destroy"
A more accurate description of fire
events might suggest they "rejuvenate" the landscape by recycling
nutrients, "create" new wildlife habitat with the addition of dead
snags, and help to "restore" forest ecosystems. Again, given the
ecological value of fires, one has to ask, why suppress the
majority of blazes at all?
Perhaps one answer is
that this is an election year. A sensible fire policy would
recognize the desirability of wildfire as an ecological force. We
should encourage fires as much as possible, only seeking to divert
them around communities. It is far less expensive to build defenses
around our towns with fire breaks and thinning of forests than to
try to stop fires across the landscape.
addition, we should recognize that people who construct homes in
fire-prone environments are just as imprudent as someone who parks
a car on a railroad track. Fighting fires to "save" homes in the
woods - often built by wealthy people - is a subsidy of immense
proportions. Such fire-prone sites should be zoned off-limits to
home construction, just as we attempt to zone construction away
from river floodplains. At the very least, taxpayers shouldn't have
to pay for the foolish decisions of others.
Elimination of fire protection for such isolated homes might also
be an indirect form of land-use planning that discourages the
spread of rural subdivisions.
In the end, we
won't really stop fires. They are as natural to the West as blue
skies and drought. Fires will continue to burn up the West whether
we want them to or not. Can we learn to live with, and accept,
fires? Or will we continue to waste money, lives and time in a
foolish attempt to control an important ecological
George Wuerthner is
a naturalist and writer in Eugene, Oregon.