USA –– Wildfires in the national forests of Arizona and New Mexico, and now the blazes in Colorado, give us opportunity to reflect on wildland fires and how we should respond to them.
What really is a wildfire? Are they all disasters? Should we spend millions fighting them all?
In wildlands there are two kinds of fires. A “wildfire” is unplanned. A “prescribed fire” is lit by professionals to improve a forest’s or grassland’s health, as a doctor prescribes medicine for a sick person. Prescribed fires often reduce flammable vegetation, or “fuels,” so when future fires occur they are less intense and easier to manage.
A wildfire can be fought aggressively at huge expense, or it can be managed or “used” – carefully allowed to burn within certain boundaries under specific conditions.
We propose that, except when fire danger is high, most lightning-caused fires in unpopulated areas should be allowed to burn, as has occurred in some wilderness areas for decades with positive results.
The media describe wildfires as disasters, destroying forests for generations to come. Let’s unpack this.
A wildfire by definition becomes a disaster only if numerous homes are destroyed and people displaced or killed. This does happen; it just occurred in Colorado. It’s very unfortunate, and we grieve with those who lost their homes and even loved ones.
But let’s face it: Fire itself is not at fault. Fire is a function of nature. It does not have personality, emotions, or intentions. It does not rage, is not aggressive, does not vent fury. It burns where the three requirements for it – oxygen, heat and fuel – come together, and nowhere else.
Fires become disasters when people build flammable houses in places they shouldn’t. Historically, most wildland areas burn, and need to burn, every few decades. People who build houses near rivers take the risk of flooding. Similarly, people who build houses in wildlands take the risk of burning.
Yet every year millions of dollars are spent, and lives risked, defending houses built in indefensible places. This must change.
But, some will say, fires destroy forests! This is patently false. Lightning-caused fires have burned for millions of years, and Southwest forests have evolved with them. Visit wildlands a year after a fire, and witness a profusion of new life. Some trees that had appeared dead are sporting fresh foliage. Millions of seedlings cover the ground. And wildflowers not seen for years are blooming.
The very survival of some species depends on fire. Seeds of hundreds of plants cannot germinate without a wildfire’s heat. Suppressing fires threatens such plants and the animals that depend on them.
For most of the 20th century our nation waged all-out war on wildfires. This was a serious mistake that contributed directly to the intensity of today’s fires. Such a war is endless and unwinnable. With climate change, record temperatures and drought, fires will continue, and they will likely be more intense.
What should we do? We need to stop building houses in fire-prone areas. Residents already there must prepare their homes to survive (see firewise.org). We need to let many lightning-caused wildfires burn when conditions are favorable. And we need more prescribed fires to restore our forests to health.
In sum, we need to stop fighting nature and learn to live with her realities.