Author(s): Angelo Verzoni. Published on July 1, 2017.

Let it Burn

Why more acres consumed by wildfire may be exactly what we need


In our May/June issue, we reported that wildfires had burned more than 2.2 million acres of land in the United States from January 1 through April 21—more than three times the average for the previous nine years.

Taken at face value, the spike is alarming. But under the right conditions, more acreage torched by wildfires is what experts say we need.

“In an urban setting, every fire put out is a problem solved. But in many wildlands, every fire put out is a problem put off,” Stephen Pyne, a wildfire researcher and historian, told NFPA Journal in a recent interview. Pyne has authored dozens of books on the history and management of wildfire and is recognized as a leading expert on the topic. “If you leave an area unburned, fuel begins stockpiling. It changes the structure of wildlands to where fires that do occur burn more rigorously and at higher intensity and severity. They’re no longer constrained by the old ecological checks and balances.”

These so-called checks and balances are old indeed—wildfire has existed on Earth for at least 400 million years. Since there’s been sunlight to grow plants and plants to produce oxygen, there have been fires to destroy them and start the process over again. Plants and animals have evolved to live with and even thrive side by side with wildfire. Some tree species, for example, rely on the heat from wildfires to release their seeds for reproduction. Birds such as the black-backed woodpecker scavenge burned tree trunks for insect larvae in the wake of fires. Without wildfire, the integrity of ecosystems weakens.

For decades, though, dating back to the early 1900s, the fire service in America aimed to stamp out wildfires as quickly as they started. In doing so, it unknowingly primed the environment for larger, more catastrophic ones, which continue to wreak havoc today. “We built up fuel loads,” Robert Bonnie, who supervised the U.S. Forest Service and the Natural Resources Conservation Service under President Obama, recently told 60 Minutes. “So our fires are burning hotter. They’re burning bigger. They’re more catastrophic.” Bonnie thinks even today we spend too much money on fighting wildfires that, like hurricanes, “we can’t stop.” Last year alone, federal agencies spent almost $2 billion fighting wildfires.

But in some areas, the narrative is changing. “We’re seeing a new strategy evolve, at least in the West, which is a kind of managed wildfire—a half-suppressed, half-prescribed fire,” Pyne said. “[Agencies are] backing off. Rather than going toe-to-toe with every fire at every point, they’re finding areas they really need to protect, like communities, and focusing their efforts on that.” Pyne said the strategy saves taxpayers money, keeps firefighters safer, and gives Mother Nature what it wants, which is more fire. It could also be one of the reasons behind the rise in the number of acres burned by wildfires throughout the country.

For some state land management agencies, though, the new approach isn’t always tenable. That’s the case for California’s Department of Forestry and Fire Protection, or CAL FIRE, the country’s largest state fire service. “For CAL FIRE, our protection area is private land,” said David Shew, staff chief of planning and risk analysis at CAL FIRE, who spoke about the department’s efforts to prevent wildfires at the NFPA Conference & Expo in June. “If we were to let a fire burn, it may destroy someone’s grazing crop or someone’s timber that they rely on for their livelihood. We don’t have the luxury of allowing the fire to just continue to burn, even knowing there might be some ecological benefit to it down the road.”

Watch David Shew of CAL Fire discuss the challenges his department faces in trying to shift from wildfire suppression to wildfire management.

At the same time, Shew applauded the federal government’s initiatives promoting more natural burning, and said CAL FIRE does on occasion run into a landowner who will ask them to let their land burn in the event of a wildfire.

According to the National Interagency Fire Center, as of June 20, 27,578 reported fires had burned more than 2.5 million acres nationwide so far in 2017.

ANGELO VERZONI is staff writer for NFPA Journal. Top Photograph: Getty Images