Fire in America

Human-caused fires in Western forests are not new, they have been set for as long as humans have lived there. In fact, everywhere in the Americas has been shaped by fire used at the hands of Native Americans. The America the pilgrims found was not natural nor was it a wilderness, if by those terms we mean not managed by humans.

When Europeans first entered the Yellowstone region, a wagon pulled by a team of horses could drive almost anywhere through open lands that were cleared by repeated burning. Likewise, in California, the valleys were grasslands and most of the mountain forests were open, compared to today. Today’s forests, both private and public, greatly differ from those the pilgrims and the early explorers “discovered.” Yellowstone’s forests are so thick that a wagon and team could not get through them. The Giant Sequoia groves in California are thick with underbrush and are invaded by other species of trees. Chaparral and other brush clog California forests. Lack of fire has created environments that never before existed. As Stephen Pyne, probably the foremost authority on fire in the Americas, put it, “…almost wherever the European went, forests followed. The Great American Forest may be more a product of settlement than a victim of it.”

One guide to the difference between today and 150 years ago is the book Fire in Sierra Nevada Forests: A Photographic Interpretation of Ecological Change Since 1849. The author, George E. Gruell, is a retired wildlife ecologist who compared hundreds of old landscape photographs with modern photographs he took from the same spots. Grasslands and a mosaic of open spaces have been replaced with trees and brush. His conclusion was that the change was unhealthy for forests and people.

As long as we have forests there will be fires. Since January 1, 2018 there have been 51,898 wildfires, which is actually a few less than the 54,256 wildfires in the same period in 2017, according to the National Interagency Fire Center. The total acres burned through November 2018 is nearly 8.5 million acres, compared with 8.9 million in 2017. New records for total wildfire acres burned in the United States were set in 2000, 2004, 2005, 2006, 2015 and, most recently, 2017. The important question is how can these fires be less destructive?

You would think that the US Forest Service and other federal agencies could manage forests so fires were of lower intensity and, therefore, more like those set by Native Americans. You would be wrong. The US Forest Service should be renamed the US Fire Service. It has essentially a blank check for suppressing fires, once fires have started. It has a very limited budget for preventing or, better yet, making forests less susceptible to out-of-control wildfires. This situation is not entirely the fault of Forest (Fire) Service personnel, although they certainly share in the blame. When the Forest Service, for example, was undertaking an extensive effort to manage fuel loads in California’s Giant Sequoia groves through thinning and some controlled burns, environmental groups sought and obtained a restraining order. The general public is as uninformed about the natural history of forests and fire as are members of environmental groups.They lobby their equally uninformed Members of Congress to prevent thinning by mechanical means or controlled burns.

A 2002 Forest Service report to Congress identified the 73 million acres of national forests at risk from severe wildfires and the “tens of millions” of acres of all ownership threatened by insects and disease. The report’s authors explained, “Unfortunately, the Forest Service operates within a statutory, regulatory, and administrative framework that has kept the agency from effectively addressing rapid declines in forest health.” Congress provided no relief. Environmental groups (with a few exceptions) and the general public oppose interfering with nature.

As people build in or adjacent to forests the risks of a wildfire destroying homes, or whole towns as was the case in Paradise, California, increase dramatically. If the Forest Service, other state or local agencies, or insurance companies could require that homes and other structures have fireproof roofs and landscaping for 150 feet around them, the risks decrease dramatically.

Paradise, California was built in the forest. Thick stands of tall, mature pine trees in and around the town were one of the attractants for people to build there. They also created a deathtrap when the fires arrived. Those thick stands of trees were a result of years of suppressing fires and not replacing fire with mechanical thinning.

Ninety percent of wildfires are caused either intentionally or unintentionally by human activities. Lightning has never been the primary source of wildfires. The fire that destroyed Paradise, for example, may have been started with a malfunction in an electrical powerline. A large wildfire in Utah this year was caused by sparks from a bullet shot by target shooters. If forests were less susceptible to destructive fires, humans and lightning would be less dangerous.

Restoring ecosystems to something resembling what had been created by Native Americans will be controversial and expensive. Natives burned whenever there was enough growth to make a good fire, which seldom escaped into the treetops where the fire became a fast moving crown fire such as what we have seen in the West for the last several decades. We cannot just put fire back into the woods without thinning both trees and brush. Otherwise, the fire will burn hot and fast, destroying trees, savaging soils, and threatening homes.