Why are recent wildfires in the American West bigger, harder to control

Why are recent wildfires in the American West bigger, harder to control and more damaging than those in previous decades?

—Joe Lyons, Jamaica Plain, MA

Indeed, the first few years of the 21st century have played host to wildfires of unprecedented proportions throughout the American West, killing hundreds of people and displacing thousands more, while causing billions of dollars in property damage. While natural forces such as lightning strikes started many of these fires, the forest management policies of the 20th century are to blame for the huge scope of individual fires and the destruction left in their wakes.

Historians credit a series of wildfires in 1910 that scorched three million acres of forest and claimed 85 lives in the Northern Rockies of Idaho and Montana with forcing the U.S. Forest Service to take on fire suppression as a top priority. Symbolized in later years by Forest Service mascot Smokey Bear (who is 60 years old this year), this policy did prevent many fires during its half-century reign, but it also caused a large build-up of tinder-like woody debris that eventually fueled the largest wildfires on record in recent years. When fires did begin to return, they burned out of control with a vengeance.

Foresters began to question the Smokey Bear fire suppression policy in the 1960s when they realized that no new sequoia trees were growing in California. Researchers found that these trees depend upon the high temperatures of forest fires to pry open their cones so new seeds can spring forth and take root. Looking past the case of the sequoias, researchers found that fire is an essential part of the ecology of forests. In fact, several types of trees, grasses and wildflowers have evolved in relation to fire, and depend upon occasional burns for propagation of their species.

Beyond local ecological effects, the raging fires of recent years are also contributing to global warming. Intact forests act as “carbon sinks” by storing carbon dioxide from the atmosphere in their woody debris, thus lessening the impact of pollution from cars and smokestacks. Forest fires release this stored carbon dioxide back into the atmosphere, which only exacerbates climate change.

The U.S. Forest Service now stages some “controlled burns” in order to minimize the impacts of naturally-occurring fires. While the idea of fighting fire with fire may seem strange, it is not new: Native Americans first employed controlled burns to help keep larger fires in check for many years before the arrival of Columbus. Today, individual landowners with acreage vulnerable to forest fire can help by conducting their own controlled burns in accordance with state and local laws, of course to help prevent larger and more destructive fires.

CONTACTS: U.S. Forest Service, (202) 205-8333, www.fs.fed.us; SmokeyBear.com, www.smokeybear.com; American Forests, (202) 955-4500, www.americanforests.org.