Should We Stop Trying to Put Out Forest Fires?

Do we really need to extinguish forest fires that aren’t threatening lives? Some scientists say no, claiming that it’s better for the forest when fires burn out naturally.

Researchers are working hard to determine the historical and natural level of forest fires in the United States. Back before Europeans took over and before professional firefighters existed, scientists believe between 20 and 30 million acres burned annually.

Today, we put out these wildfires after they’ve burned only about 4 to 5 million acres each year. But some experts think we ought to allow between 15 and 20 million acres a year to burn. And that’s largely because fires offer many benefits to forests.

“From an ecological standpoint, everything I’ve learned teaches me this is a good idea: Stop putting out fires,” Yale University geographer Jennifer R. Marlon told The New York Times. “These forests are made to have fire.”

At first glance, a raging fire in action doesn’t appear to be a good thing, but it’s part of a forest’s natural lifecycle. Fires burn up dead, fallen trees and underbrush lying on the forest floor, returning nutrients to the soil that nourish new growth. Removing all that old vegetation also opens up the forest floor to sunlight, which encourages growth spurts for new plants and young trees.

forest fire

Photo credit: Thinkstock

Wildlife benefits from the after effects of a fire, too. The burned carcasses of old trees become a desirable habitat for a host of creatures that depend on regular fires. Many animals, including threatened or endangered species, can live in recently burned forests — some actually prefer it over any other habitat.

Combine limited burning with poor forest management, and you have a recipe for a fire disaster. According to the Pacific Biodiversity Institute:

Many dry coniferous forests have now missed several fire cycles. Due to their accessibility, these forests have also been extensively managed for timber production and livestock grazing. The ecological consequences of these management activities have caused a fairly dramatic change in tree density and forest composition. These changes have often created stands of dense, small-diameter trees in areas that used to be dominated by widely spaced old-growth trees. Past management activities have clearly created a situation in which a greater concentration of fuel is present, and there is a higher probability of high-intensity fire, should a wildfire spread into or start in the area.

The other problem, some believe, is climate change and its impact on the frequency and intensity of forest fires. Many experts believe climate change is imposing drought conditions, which create longer wildfire seasons over larger areas. Extreme dryness makes all the thick, dead underbrush that much more likely to fuel a raging fire. And bigger fires mean more damage than a forest would otherwise suffer in a typical scenario.

But it’s not just the ecosystems that suffer when we rush to put out every forest fire. The human toll is heartbreaking as well. More than 1,000 wildland firefighters have been killed in the line of duty since 1910. Sadly, 42 percent of these courageous people die from ”burnover” — literally being overrun by flames. The next most frequent cause of death is by heart attack.

burned forest

The aftermath of a forest fire. Photo credit: Thinkstock

“The lives of young people are not worth saving trees that really need to burn anyway,” Dr. Timothy Ingalsbee, head of Firefighters United for Safety, Ethics and Ecology, told The New York Times. “Families are no longer going to be mollified by politicians showing up at the memorial talking about their fallen heroes.”

If it’s true that fires are good for forests and habitats, why do we work so hard to put them out? Why aren’t we pouring some of the billions of dollars we spend every year fighting fires into fireproofing homes that are nearer to fire-prone areas?

It’s a high price to pay when we absolutely know that fires help the forest rather than harming it.  Why put so many good people’s lives in danger to fight fires that the ecosystem depends on?

It sounds like the U.S. needs to adjust its thinking on the value of forest fires. Where we can do so safely, let’s experiment a little to determine what happens when we let nature take its course after a fire starts.

Photo credit: Thinkstock

46 comments

Marie W
Marie W4 months ago

thanks for sharing

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Sarah Hill
Sarah Hill7 months ago

We have to continue to try to put them out. There are lives at stake!

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Margie F
Margie FOURIE9 months ago

I know that fires generate more growth, but when there are people of animals involved, please put them out.

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Ruth S
Ruth S9 months ago

They already allow forest fires to burn in CO if it isn't endangering private property. Not news.

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Celine R
Celine Russo9 months ago

Guess mild pyro-lovers can take on the job of setting fire occasionally to forests...

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One Heart i
One Heart inc9 months ago

Thanks!!!

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Clare O'Beara
Clare O'Beara9 months ago

Greenland is now having wildfires. If that doesn't tell you the climate is warming you are determined to live in a cave.

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Clare O'Beara
Clare O'Beara9 months ago

Some fires were suppressed for many years and now the buildup of brush has resulted in fuel.

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heather g
heather g9 months ago

220 fires were ravaging the forests at one stage in BC. Many thousands were evacuated - farm animals had to be left and many lost their homes as well. Half the fires were started by the usual mindless arsonists. The thick smoke spread over hundreds of square km. and we had to stay indoors for more than a week. After a week, the wind took four days to clear our town and many of us couldn't stop coughing - even at night. My lungs have still not completely cleared.
Fighting fires is an action not only when the fires are burning and spreading over the hills and farms, it is year-round work. If you don't prepare by burning fire-breaks during the rest of the year - you are simply irresponsible.

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earthism info
earthism info9 months ago

prescribed burning is the solution to forest fires

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