It’s peak wildfire season in the American West. As I write this, firefighters are battling twenty-six active fires across eight of the thirteen Western states, including five in California, where a prolonged drought and extreme summer heat have turned forestlands into tinderboxes waiting for a light. So far, four civilian and two firefighter deaths have been reported and thousands of homes have been evacuated. As the fire season stretches on into fall, more grim news may be in the offing.
As is usual, the fires were quickly followed by another annual ritual: Officials and the media describing them or the fire season itself as “catastrophic,” “unprecedented,” or the “worst in recorded history.”
In the face of stark images of raging flames painting hillsides orange, smoke-greyed skies, and harrowing tales of people forced to flee their homes, it’s hard to view the fires as anything but catastrophic. The knowledge that wildfires, large and small, have been an essential part of Western landscapes for millennia does little to quell our inherent fear of fire, and indeed, offers no solace to families who have lost loved ones or their homes to the flames. Small wonder that our first instinctive response to wildfires is to “fight” them. The US Forest Service has been acting on this gut logic for nearly a century now.
But this is one of those cases where instinct serves us wrong.
The proven and difficult truth is that traditional fire-control measures like logging forests to thin them and removing dead trees are usually counterproductive. As ecologist and author George Wuerthner reports in this issue’s cover story (“The War Against Wildfire”), such measures do a poor job of protecting communities living near forests, are ecologically destructive, and put our firefighters at unnecessary risk.
Wildfire ecologists have been saying as much for a long time now, and our forest management agencies have been ignoring their informed insight for just as long. Instead, they further fan public fears about wildfires by citing how climate change is making fires more frequent and more destructive than ever before – yet another statement that, Wuerthner explains, doesn’t quite stand in the face of historical data.
Wildland fire management in the US is mired in a vicious cycle: The more that agencies like the Forest Service struggle to suppress fires, the more they create fire-vulnerable forests, and the more resources – human and financial – they have to expend in fighting fires. This Sisyphean strategy to control a force of nature makes as much sense as trying to fight an earthquake or manage a hurricane. It fails to recognize that when it comes to these natural phenomena, coexistence is key.
The focus of wildfire management should be on creating fire-resilient communities.
That isn’t too hard to do: There are well-proven, relatively inexpensive fireproofing measures that can better protect homes and lives in fire zones.
The real challenge is to check our instinctive response to wildfires, stand back, and let them burn.
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