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.

High Country News Classifieds
  • EXECUTIVE DIRECTOR
    Forever Our Rivers Foundation is searching for a driven and creative leader to build a movement, conserving and restoring America's rivers by helping customers find...
  • DEPUTY DIRECTOR
    Friends of Cedar Mesa is hiring a Deputy Director/COO who will have the overall responsibilities of general program management, staff management, financial & budget management,...
  • CUSTOMER SERVICE ASSISTANT - (PART-TIME)
    High Country News, an award-winning media organization covering the communities and environment of the Western United States, seeks a part-time Customer Service Assistant, based at...
  • RURAL ACREAGE OUTSIDE SILVER CITY, NM
    Country living just minutes from town! 20 acres with great views makes a perfect spot for your custom home. Nice oaks and juniper. Cassie Carver,...
  • COMMUNICATIONS AND OUTREACH ASSOCIATE
    Communications and Outreach Associate Position Opening: www.westernlaw.org/communications-outreach-associate ************************************************* Location: Western U.S., ideally in one of WELC's existing office locations (Santa Fe or Taos, NM, Helena,...
  • OFFICE ADMINISTRATOR AND BOOKKEEPER
    Posted: July 19, 2021 Application deadline: August 27 or until position is filled. Western Colorado Alliance for Community Action is seeking a fulltime Office Administrator...
  • COMMUNITY ORGANIZER
    Posted: July 15, 2021 Application deadline: August 21, 2021 or until position is filled Western Colorado Alliance for Community Action is seeking three full time...
  • A FIVE STAR FOREST SETTING WITH SECLUSION AND SEPARATENESS
    This home is for a discerning buyer in search of a forest setting of premier seclusion & separateness. Surrounded on all sides by USFS land...
  • CARPENTER WANTED
    CARPENTER WANTED. Come to Ketchikan and check out the Rainforest on the coast, HIke the shorelines, hug the big trees, watch deer in the muskeg...
  • AUDIENCE ENGAGEMENT EDITOR
    High Country News (HCN) seeks an audience editor to attract and acquire new audiences and deepen engagement with them - in our newsletters, on our...
  • COMMUNITY MARKETER
    High Country News (HCN) is looking for a Community Marketer to build and strengthen relationships between HCN and other organizations and individuals, with the aim...
  • FINANCE & OPERATIONS MANAGER
    Job Announcement: Finance and Operations Manager Announcement date: July 16, 2021 Applications will be reviewed on an ongoing basis and first review will begin: August...
  • DEVELOPMENT DIRECTOR
    Job Announcement: Development Director Announcement date: July 16, 2021 Applications will be reviewed on an ongoing basis and first review will begin: August 9, 2021...
  • HECHO POLICY AND ADVOCACY MANAGER
    Hispanics Enjoying Camping, Hunting, and the Outdoors (HECHO) was created in 2013 to help fulfill our duty to conserve and protect our public lands for...
  • HECHO NEW MEXICO SENIOR FIELD COORDINATOR
    Hispanics Enjoying Camping, Hunting, and the Outdoors (HECHO) was created in 2013 to help fulfill our duty to conserve and protect our public lands for...
  • IDAHO STATE DIRECTOR
    The Wilderness Society is seeking a full time Idaho State Director who will preferably be based in Boise, Idaho. This position is part of our...
  • CAUCASIAN OVCHARKA PUPPIES
    Strong loyal companions. Ready to protect your family and property. Proven against wolves and grizzlies. Imported bloodlines. Well socialized.
  • DEPUTY DIRECTOR
    The Nature Conservancy in Alaska is dedicated to saving the lands and waters on which all life depends. For more than 30 years, TNC has...
  • STAFF ATTORNEY, CLIMATE AND ENERGY PROGRAM
    STAFF ATTORNEY POSITION OPENING https://westernlaw.org/career-opportunity-climate-energy-staff-attorney/ ************************************************** Position Title: Climate and Energy Program Staff Attorney Reports to: Climate and Energy Program Director Location: Helena, Montana; other...
  • STAFF ATTORNEY, WILDLANDS AND WILDLIFE PROGRAM
    STAFF ATTORNEY POSITION OPENING https://westernlaw.org/career-opportunity-wildlands-staff-attorney/ ************************************************** Position Title: Wildlands and Wildlife Program Staff Attorney Reports to: Wildlands and Wildlife Program Director Location: Portland or Eugene,...