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Ending the West’s Wildfire Groundhog Day: It’s not just about putting out fires

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Global warming and a century of misguided forest management policy have led to ever more devastating fire seasons across the Western states over recent years. To mitigate this unfolding disaster, we need an approach to forest management that emphasizes, first and foremost, creating and maintaining healthy, resilient forests.

Last year, 4.4 million acres of my adoptive home state burnt to the ground. By the end of 2020, 10,000 wildfires across California had killed at least 31 people, forced another 50,000 from their homes and caused an estimated $10 billion in property damage. It was the most devastating fire season on record, the media proclaimed. I feel like I’ve heard that phrase every fire season since I moved here.

Absent any serious progress in tackling climate change it’s almost certain to become an ever more familiar refrain over the coming years. But it’s also true that the dangers of global warming have been amplified here in the West by a century of misguided forest management policy. Most notably, a focus on aggressive fire suppression has removed from the ecological equation the small, naturally occurring fires that historically cleared forest undergrowth of its most flammable material, leaving millions of acres of forestland packed with unprecedented accumulations of fuels. For years, rising temperatures and more flammable forests have been a disaster waiting to happen. And now the disaster is happening.

Mitigating the escalating fire risk brought about by our warming climate requires a fundamental shift in thinking at the policy level, away from simply “putting out fires” and towards creating and maintaining resilient forests: in other words, restoring our forests, to the greatest extent possible, to their healthy, natural state.

Depending on the area, forest restoration might include practices like thinning smaller diameter trees and carrying out properly planned controlled burns, which research suggests can help restore the structural complexity historically engendered by naturally occurring fires. It might also mean reducing the density of forests and creating conditions beneficial to larger, older, more fire-resistant trees like the ponderosa pine and Douglas fir. Twentieth century national forest timber management plans aimed at maximizing timber harvests removed most of these magnificent old trees from America’s forests, so nurturing the ones that remain is vital since they are the ones most likely to survive a wildfire and subsequently act as focal points for recovery.

The huge diversity of forest types in the United States, however, means that restoration techniques and practices appropriate to one area might well be useless in another. While forest thinning and prescribed fire may be suitable at lower elevations and drier forests, for instance, such as the ponderosa pine forests in the Southwest, these practices may not be able to restore natural complexity and thus mitigate fire behavior in high-elevation forests, as in the Rocky Mountain region where fires tend to be driven more by weather conditions than fuel loads.

There is, in other words, no “one-size-fits all” solution, and acknowledging this reality is the first step in a necessary reorientation of our underlying attitude toward wildfire. For too long, U.S. forest fire policy has emphasized short-term outcomes over long-term goals, and the worsening devastation we’ve seen across the West over recent years is the price we pay for that.

Long-term thinking has to recognise that large-scale forest restoration is fundamental in enhancing forest ecosystem integrity and building resilience to wildfires, and for this reason should be ascribed at least the same level of importance as other land management priorities – both in principle, and in terms of the resources allocated to it. If funding for combating wildfires fails to include a significant portion dedicated specifically to forest restoration, then forest resilience will continue to deteriorate, fires will become more dangerous and destructive, and the American taxpayer will continue to front the costs of fire suppression, which will remain high, or most likely increase as the vicious circle of fire suppression leading to more fires continues.

Equally, an effective fire policy needs to recognise and accommodate the diversity of different regions and forest ecosystems in the U.S. In practical terms, this necessitates a rigorously science-based approach that prioritizes doing specific work in specific places, and with increased interagency cooperation. This in turn means building and maintaining an effective framework for collaboration between the Forest Service and other partners and agencies, as well as designing policies aimed at promoting collaboration and resource-sharing between federal, state and local partners and focusing resources on specific, targeted areas. This should include an increased emphasis on fuel reduction in areas close to communities, for example – one area where federal partnerships with states and local governments are especially important.

In short, the bottom line when it comes to wildfires is pretty similar to that of most other areas where government and conservation collide: what’s needed is a combination of long-term thinking and better integration of science, policy and management. With more emphasis on creating and maintaining healthy, resilient forests, and less on simply “putting out fires,” we can begin to build a forest management approach that actually addresses the problem rather than contributing to it.

Image: Malachi Brooks, via Unsplash