USA – In June 2015, less than 24 hours after answering a phone call, I was on a plane to Alaska. I had just received my first assignment as a member of a Utah-based Hotshot crew — a team of about 20 experienced and physically fit wildland firefighters.
We were assigned to help protect a tiny village called Chuathbaluk, about 300 miles northwest of Anchorage. The community was only accessible by air or by boat. When we arrived, along with another Hotshot crew and a handful of smokejumpers (other experienced firefighters that are sometimes inserted by parachute to respond to wildfires), the locals were relieved that the fire would be taken care of. After all, nothing stokes fear like smoke rising in the wildlands close to home.
The thing is — putting fear aside — unless wildfires are extreme or are genuinely threatening homes, we actually need more of them, and we need them badly.
According to fire ecologists, 20 to 30 million acresor more burned each year in the United States before organized fire-suppression efforts began in the early 20th century, compared to just 10 million acres that burned in 2017. Unnecessary fire suppression efforts have generated this “fire deficit,” and combined with drought and higher temperatures, it’s caused a buildup of thick growth and old, fire-prone fuels. If instead we chose not to suppress lower-intensity fires that aren’t actively threatening people’s homes, these wildfires would serve a vital role: regenerating our public lands and keeping them in their natural equilibrium.
In other words, we have been setting ourselves up for wildfire failure for quite some time.
This spring, Congress classified wildfire as a natural disaster as part of the omnibus bill. This allows federal land managers to use disaster funding to address wildfire problems. Annually, the U.S. Forest Service and Department of the Interior exceed their fire budgets and dip into the funds intended for other uses, including important funding for prescribed burns and other fire prevention work. The disaster fund prevents this by providing a separate funding source to be used when land management agencies go over budget.
While this change is certainly a financial step in the right direction for federal agencies that handle wildfires, it can also cause unnecessary fire suppression based on unmerited (though understandable) fear from citizens and subsequent political pressure to “do something.” Such problems have permeated our way of thinking for far too long. Rather than institutionalizing the idea that all wildfires are “disasters,” we need to be pushing for a more reasoned, and much less extreme, direction.
Wildfire is not the disaster or catastrophe we have been conditioned to believe.
Large fires are not necessarily bad, and small fires aren’t necessarily good. What we must avoid is the extreme fire behavior that is difficult to control. It leaves lasting negative effects on the land: sterilized soil, devastated habitats and decades-long recovery for the land. Low- and medium-intensity fires, on the other hand, clear away underbrush to prevent extreme wildfires down the road and cultivate new growth by putting nutrients back into the soil. The West was meant to burn, heal and rejuvenate — that is a natural part of its life cycle. A healthy forest is a patchwork of trees and open areas, made possible through periodic thinning by wildfire and other active management practices such as grazing and prescribed burning.
The number of homes in areas at risk for wildfire has grown by more than 40 percent in the last two decades, and the number of structures lost has been roughly doubling each decade since 1990. A healthy patchwork in our forests will significantly decrease extreme fire behavior and smoke in the future and, more importantly, help safeguard homes and the public.
At Chuathbaluk, we never did put the fire out. We made sure the village was safe by creating a fuel break and setting up sprinklers in case of a necessary backburn. We directly suppressed the south flank of the fire. Mostly, we allowed the fire to continue burning; the rain and natural fuel breaks put it out. Ecologically, that area is geared up for a healthy future and the village will be safer moving forward.
Allowing some fires to run their natural course under the right conditions, along with a better-managed approach to areas with at-risk homes will protect firefighters, the public and the environment. Disasters such as destroyed homes can be avoided. We must chart a new course where we see fire as the positive tool it can be, instead of relegating it to the category of natural disaster.
For me, fire is not an enemy to fear, but an ally for which I have a healthy respect.