Whatever happened to letting fires burn?


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.

Wildfires are 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.

On the 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 fires.

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" anything.

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.

In 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 process?

George Wuerthner is a naturalist and writer in Eugene, Oregon.

Note: the opinions expressed in this column are those of the writer and do not necessarily reflect those of High Country News, its board or staff. If you'd like to share an opinion piece of your own, please write Betsy Marston at betsym@hcn.org.