August 8th, 2012 by

I’ve mentioned in a previous post that fire is a natural part of a forest’s life cycle that helps replenish soil nutrients. It’s for this reason that wildfires are usually allowed to burn out on their own , granted that they remain at a low intensity and are far from developed areas.

Credit: footloosiety/Flickr

However, a new U.S. Forest Service directive has put a temporary hold the agency’s typical response to wildfires for the last two decades. This new directive instructs forest supervisors to act more proactively by quickly putting out wilderness fires in the early stages, while they’re still small, instead of using more manpower and equipment to monitor the fire. The hope is that putting out small wildfires will ultimately save the agency time and resources, as things like equipment, aircrafts and firefighting crews will be more readily available to tend to higher-priority fires that may arise near developed and populated areas.

This new directive is the end result of too many fires and not enough funding. Kris Reichenbach, public affairs officer for Superior National Forest, told Minnesota Public Radio that this directive aims to improve the agency’s approach to national wildfire emergencies and make better use of funding. Based on the string of huge fires that have plagued the West this summer — forcing people to evacuate their homes — the agency hopes the directive addresses issues of resource availability for catastrophic wildfires. In an agency-wide memo, James E. Hubbard, U.S. Forest Service deputy chief for state and private forestry, supported the directive, stating that “safe aggressive initial attack is often the best suppression strategy to keep unwanted wildfires small and costs down.”

I’m encouraged by the U.S. Forest Service’s plan to use their resources more effectively to stop a fire in its initial stages, but I wonder how these efforts will keep up with the rise of megafires. According to NASA scientist Dr. James Hansen, climate change is one of the major factors that intensify wildfire. In the last few years, unusually hot, dry and windy weather conditions — the products of climate change — have caused fires like the Pagami Creek Fire in Minnesota and the Whitewater-Baldy Fire in Colorado to quickly become catastrophic in scale. Such conditions are putting even more strain on firefighting resources, as fires are spreading and intensifying faster than ever. In the U.S., from 2002-2011, wildfires burned an average of 6.9 million acres annually. That’s almost double the annual average from the previous decade!

As the issue of wildfire becomes more and more complex, it’s important to take a management approach that takes all factors into consideration — development, climate change, weather conditions, etc. This is a critical time for wildfire management, especially when it appears as though these megafires are becoming the new norm.