Conservation news

First the savior, now the villain: Fire suppression is often overhyped in the American west (commentary)

  • In this commentary, Dr. Paul C. Rogers, a forest ecologist and Director of the Western Aspen Alliance at Utah State University, argues that forest managers’ “goal should not be to stop wildfire but to reduce conflicts with it.”
  • “Recent history has not yet shown us mega-droughts surpassing individual decades or mega-fires scorching tens of millions of acres, but without reversal of humanity’s fossil fuel habits future use of those hyper-monikers may be well placed.”
  • “When vegetation is dry and winds are high, no amount of money, retardant, water, human fodder, or forest thinning is going to stop them. In the end, our best strategy is to understand, and then practice, living with inevitable fire and not continuing to think we are masters of forests or flames.”
  • This article is a commentary. The views expressed are those of the author, not necessarily Mongabay.

Western forests are pretty healthy, though our relationships with them may not be.  Humans crave the spotlight in environmental narratives. We shape the land and fix the bad contours. Of late, wildfire is the cause célèbre in the American West melodrama. The first act consists of fixing blame, and that weathered adage “100 years of fire suppression” is the clear villain. Maybe we should revisit this storyline. If history is told by the victors, we may be off script, misdirecting the climax.

We frequently hear that last century’s fire suppression created a modern era of dense fire-prone forests.  Forest management created this problem and timber tinkering is required to cure the unhealthy patient.  George Hoxie, in 1910, focused on an often-overlooked decision point in forest stewardship history. He argued that “practical forestry” should make greater use of fire; let “fire be the servant and not the master” was his maxim. Some argue today that Native peoples employed a similar philosophy. Hoxie’s assault on contemporaneous “government theories” of fire suppression were passed over; a fateful choice was made. Intentional burning in the woods and on the range prior to this time resulted in frequent escaped fires. The oft-cited decline in forest fires of the 20th century may be partially explained by prior widespread burning by lumbermen, ranchers, and some Indigenous peoples.  While human-caused fire appears to have a taken a relative hiatus after 1910, that’s not the entire story.

The 20th century, as fire goes, may be summed up as burning cessation and climate wetting. According to tree-ring-based climate reconstructions, this was the wettest century of the past 2,000 years in much of the West. Lead-off by a drenching 1900-1920 cycle, subsequent dry and wet decades overwhelmingly resulted in a relative century-long saturation. The effect this trend had on fire mitigation cannot be overstated, certainly outstripping the somewhat feeble first 40 years of suppression tactics.

The late 1940s heralded the advent of airborne fire suppression, but even this couldn’t wrangle fires during droughty times with stiff winds. Forest roads and greater mechanization of forestry, generally, increased fire fighting prowess in more accessible low-elevation locales; still, this was a relatively sodden century where marginally effective fire suppression gave the appearance of success when fire was vilified. Even if those 50 years of fire-fighting were effective, how much could the practice have influenced subalpine forests that only burn every 200-400 years? While we might generously attribute a small influence to fire suppression, today’s dense forests come predominately from climate cycles and, on some landscape, agriculturally-based forest practices that have often created younger and denser stands of trees.

Big fire tracks drought tightly. There’s historical precedence of century-scale fire-drought periods (e.g., Medieval Warm Period), decadal elevated fire (e.g., 1890s, 2000s), and high-burn individual years (e.g., 2020).  Recent history has not yet shown us mega-droughts surpassing individual decades or mega-fires scorching tens of millions of acres, but without reversal of humanity’s fossil fuel habits future use of those hyper-monikers may be well placed.  In places primed for ready-ignition — such as fire-dependent chaparral vegetation types of California — even a small uptick in aridity can expand the fire season significantly, as well as light the proverbial spark. No doubt, longer fire seasons are spawning novel conditions in some areas that will exacerbate prolonged droughts. But climate change action today — resoundingly needed — will not stop next year’s forest fires. In its worst interpretation, invoking climate change as the cause of “mega fires” places blame in an overwhelming, unfixable, long-term antagonist while we charge ahead (again) with thinly veiled extractive and development schemes.

Firefighters tend to a controlled burn in Southern Utah. Image courtesy of Paul C. Rogers.

Our goal should not be to stop wildfire but to reduce conflicts with it. Rather than embrace inertia or tap the sputtering forestry spigot, what can be achieved in the short-term are moratoriums on building in fire-prone areas, requiring wildfire insurance, designing fire-proof structures and building codes, rather than resorting to large-scale forest manipulation as the go-to tool.  Recrafting forests to meet people’s flameless desires is like redirecting water to flow uphill.  Informed property stewardship tethered to creating fire-free clearings in already developed sites, more intensive woody fuel removal near settlements, and reducing active management at greater distances from structures (i.e., roadless areas, designated wilderness, and undeveloped forests) are tangible initiatives for the present-day.  If we don’t allow building in flood plains, why do we facilitate dwellings in fire-prone forests?

Ah, the illusion of fire suppression success!  The 20th century provided us with a convenient, admittedly unplanned, false sense of security.  We imagined ourselves, and Smokey concurred, that we had conquered fire. So, we built with voracious capitalist appetites into the hinterlands in our quest to develop quiet spaces as personal fiefdoms.  Strained logic aside, nobody should be surprised by bigger and more “destructive” – remember the leading character here –conflagrations in the 21st century.  The price tag inevitably ballooned with more buildings further into the forest.  Large hot fires, ebbing and flowing with climate, have been around much longer than the sensationalized news footage, exurban development, off-the-grid cabins, and gated forest sanctuaries for the well-healed.

The human-caused climate crisis has real ramifications for natural systems, but human-centered narratives of forest control only go so far. The stories we tell ourselves nearly always involve a human-driven problem countered by a technical fix. In modern agency-speak, all that past cutting and fire suppression was the problem. To set the stage right, we need more forest management and, when that doesn’t come fast enough, more fire suppression.  This is perplexing, but exactly what many government and private forest managers are promoting (e.g. “Thin the Threat” from the Idaho Forest Products Commission). In particular, without the acknowledgement that forests burn, most pointedly, when climate induces them to do so, we are left casting ourselves in the leading role. When vegetation is dry and winds are high, no amount of money, retardant, water, human fodder, or forest thinning is going to stop them.  In the end, our best strategy is to understand, and then practice, living with inevitable fire and not continuing to think we are masters of forests or flames.

Citations

Dr. Paul C. Rogers is a biogeographer, forest ecologist, and Director of the Western Aspen Alliance at Utah State University.  Opinions expressed here are his own and not necessarily representative of USU.