A relationship change is needed with fire in the American West

By James O’Brien, Staff Writer

Deschutes National Forest in Central Oregon showcasing the forest scarred from fire, but re-vegetating slowly. Photo by James O’Brien.

This has been the worst year for wildfires in our nation’s history. This statement seems to be on a broken record, but something about this year was different. Fires have been more widespread and have been burning longer and with more intensity.

According to the California government’s fire-tracking website, more than four million acres of the state have already burned this year, resulting in eight deaths and the loss of more than 5,000 structures. Countless more California citizens battle the negative health impacts brought on by poor air quality that is suffocating communities.

All across Oregon, skies turned orange, heavy with smoke, from an onslaught of historic fires in September. Those fires contributed to the more than one million acres of Oregon land that have burned this year, which is more than double the ten-year average according to a recent article. In that same month, The Guardian reported that Portland, Oregon, held the unfortunate title of “worst air quality in the world,” with Seattle, Washington, holding the number two spot.

The U.S. Department of Agriculture (USDA) reported that the cost of the 2017 fire season exceeded $2.4 billion, shattering the financial damage from any previous year.  But this figure only reveals a small part of the economic fallout. In a recent interview with the New York Times, Tom Corringham, a researcher at the Scripps Institution of Oceanography who studies the economic impacts of natural disasters, said that damages from 2020 fires could reach a staggering $20 billion in total direct costs. These numbers are only expected to grow unless drastic shifts in fire management occur.

Loss of life, homes, entire communities, a sense of security, and more have become part of the cycle of normal life as a resident in fire-prone western towns when fire season arrives. But fire in the American West is no new phenomenon: centuries of fires have shaped the landscapes that exist today.

Climate change and mismanagement are the culprits behind this new age of fire behavior in the West. To better understand how these culprits have so drastically shifted fire behavior, we need to look to the past.

Native people of this land used regular prescribed fires as a management tool to maintain healthy ecosystem balances across all of North America before European colonization. They utilized holistic land management techniques to not only live with fire, but thrive with it.

When colonists arrived out West with their ignorance of  indigenous fire-management practices, they quickly altered natural forest ecosystem dynamics. These changes were driven by the colonists’ need to settle and raise livestock. Forests quickly shifted from healthy stand densities to large swaths of clear cut land, leaving only trunks. This “conquer the land” mindset led to years of forest mismanagement as more and more colonists moved out West.

Fast forward to the 1900s, where a famous bout of fires in 1910, which later became famously known as the “Big Blowup,”  raged across Montana, Idaho, and Washington, killing over 80 people and wiping towns completely off the map. This motivated the newly established U.S. Forest Service to begin an aggressive era of fire suppression.

File:The Apple Fire burns north of Beaumont, Friday, July 31, 2020.jpg -  Wikimedia Commons
The 2020 wildfires. Photo from Wikimedia Commons.

Their tactics were detrimental to the health of the forests, which require controlled fires to maintain healthy ecological functions. Because the Forest Service’s new approaches were implemented in the continued era of westward expansion and occupation, the fuel loads on the landscape only grew. Simply put, they kept adding fuel to the fire, but never let it burn. This of course led to the disastrous relationship with fires we are dealing with now—that when fires burn, they have decades of fuel to use.

Poor past management through fire suppression is not the only contributing factor to this unstable relationship we have with fire. Another key player that has been exacerbating extreme fires since the industrial revolution is climate change. Atmospheric data plainly shows extreme carbon amounts released into the atmosphere since the start of the industrial revolution. This resulted in climate shifts in the American West, causing changes in snow and rain patterns, plant community dynamics, and a new overall trend of warmer and drier conditions. The simple math supports that with these drier and warmer conditions blanketing the West, fires are becoming more frequent and severe.

Where to go from here is simple. We need to become proactive rather than reactive when addressing fires. Fire ecologists almost unanimously agree that putting fire back onto the landscape through regular prescribed fires—exactly how native peoples did before the fire suppression era—is the management route needed to mitigate wildfire risk in the West.

Resources need to be aggressively funneled to federal and state agencies to better manage forests. Shorter fire seasons need to become a strategy of the past, and controlled burns need to take place year-round if we want to stop fire suppression. Fire is not the enemy. Instead, we need to learn how best to control it.

Lastly, we need to stop denying climate change’s influence on fire behavior. We need to establish science-driven policy with elected officials who understand the socioeconomic and ecological threats this issue poses to our planet and who will work to protect us. Our current relationship with fire in the West is an unsustainable one, and the dangerous results we’re seeing from it now are only a snapshot of what’s to come if it doesn’t change.

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