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Changing the Conversation about Fire

By: , Posted on: November 12, 2015

duncan canyon snag forest
Duncan Canyon snag forest created in the 2001 Starr Fire, Sierra Mountains, CA (D. Bevington).

As two forest ecologists and a firefighter, we view forests as a dynamic ecosystem, see fire as nature’s circle of life, and promote coexistence with backcountry fires rather than relentlessly fighting them. While the news media and Congress each year proclaim burnt forests from Yellowstone to the Sierra and Cascade Mountains as unprecedented catastrophes, we see nature’s remarkable resilience at work. We seek a rational conversation especially now as fire season has died down.

Just about every fire season, the headlines read “worst” fire or fire season in recorded history and how fires “destroyed” millions of acres. Congress blames logging restrictions for fires and every year, including this one, proposes to suspend environmental laws on public lands to dramatically increase logging in the name of “restoration” and fire prevention.

Most media coverage this year focused on the 9 million burned acres nationally as “unprecedented disasters.” But during the dry spells of the 1910-1940s, fire averaged some 10-30 million acres annually in the West, and before Europeans arrived fire typically burned over tens of millions of acres each year.  Such accounts of unprecedented fires suffer from fire-history amnesia.

It also may be hard to visualize this at first, but soon after a fire, new life emerges from the ashes with vigor. Dead trees begin this renewal cycle by shading tree seedlings from intense sunlight. Colorful wildflowers and flowering shrubs recycle soil nutrients and provide food for pollinators, while flying insects feed bats and birds. Woodpeckers arrive to nest in charred trees and feed on wood-boring beetles that have flown for many miles, homing in on heat or smoke emitted from the recent fire. Large game feast on fresh green shoots and browse. Scientists have documented nature’s remarkable rejuvenating powers at work after fire in forests across the West.

Read more: California’s Forests Were Born to Burn 

By contrast, logged-over landscapes lack this ecological richness as loggers remove large live and dead trees, leaving flammable slash and densely stocked tree plantations. Logged-over areas in the Sierra and Cascades are known to burn more intensely than parks and wilderness areas, dispelling claims that logging prevents fires or environmental protection promotes them.

And, while climate change may increase fire in places, there is broad scientific consensus that extreme weather like periodic droughts, high temperatures and winds is overwhelmingly the main driver of large, high-intensity wildfires, not fuels or forest density. Human-caused climate change is real, and reducing warming temperatures is the great environmental challenge of our times.  But the solution is to curb fossil fuel emissions and deforestation—the two main drivers of global warming pollution. Rolling-back environmental laws and increasing logging will not lessen climate change, will further threaten imperiled species, will reduce carbon storage in forests, and will not solve for loss of lives or homes in fires.

To coexist with fire we need to mainly prepare the nearly 46 million homes located in fire-prone areas and restrict sprawl in yet undeveloped fire-prone areas, according to estimates provided by Headwaters Economics. Adopting FireWise practices for homes and using smart-growth initiatives like zoning will have a remarkable effect on preventing home fire disasters. Concentrating firefighting efforts on protecting lives and communities that are prepared for fire will enable backcountry areas to be restored with fire without putting either at needless risk.

As suppression costs are now in the billions of dollars annually while more homes and firefighters’ lives are being lost, it is clear that change needs to happen. We are not going to “win” an endless battle with a vital force of nature that has been shaping Oregon forests for millennia. Changing agency fire management policies to allow backcountry fires to perform their essential ecological roles while working to reduce risks to homes and lives will let us safely and sustainably coexist with fire.

dominick dellasala creekDominick DellaSala (twitter: @Dominic39555249), Chief Scientist at the Geos Institute, and Chad Hanson, an ecologist with the John Muir Project, are the editors of the new book, The Ecological Importance of Mixed-Severity Fires: Nature’s Phoenix.

Timothy Ingalsbee is a former wildland firefighter and Executive Director of Firefighters United for Safety, Ethics, and Ecology (FUSEE).

ecological impact of mixed severity

To save up to 30% on a copy of the book The Ecological Importance of Mixed-Severity Fires: Nature’s Phoenix, order online via the Elsevier Store. Enter discount code STC215 at checkout.

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