June 6th, 2012 by

Wildfire has frequently been in the headlines this past week, as a megafire continues to blaze through the Southwest. Two separate fires, the Whitewater and Baldy, that began last week have merged and taken over Gila National Forest, becoming the largest wildfire in New Mexico’s history. The Whitewater-Baldy fire has caused several highway and recreation site closures to ensure civilian safety. Burning 15 miles east of Glenwood, New Mexico, the fire started as a result of two lightning strikes and severe drought-like conditions. About 250,000 acres, approximately 390 square miles, have already been claimed by the destructive fire. To prevent the fire from spreading even faster, crews are working to contain the blaze.

You may be wondering why firefighters are trying to contain the fire rather than putting it out. It’s fairly common these days for forest managers to let wildfires burn naturally, as long as they are burning at a low intensity and are far away from people. Fire is a natural part of a forest’s life cycle that helps release necessary nutrients into the soil, and this kind of controlled, natural burning clears out debris that causes fires to spread more quickly.

Credit: Forest Service - Northern Region/Flickr

More than 1,000 firefighters are trying to keep the Whitewater-Baldy fire away from nearby communities — which is quickly spreading due to strong winds, but is burning at a lower intensity than originally anticipated. Currently, about 20 percent of the fire is contained, meaning those areas are no longer spreading and are being allowed to extinguish naturally. To accomplish this containment, firefighting crews are using a method called aerial ignition, where they get rid of debris before the wildfire reaches it, preventing the fire from spreading. With aerial ignition, debris is ignited via aircraft to keep firefighting crews far away from the flames. Despite safety precautions, firefighter safety is still a major concern for wildfire work. Just this week, tragedy struck as an aircraft carrying two Boise firefighters crashed into rugged terrain on its way to a wildfire on the Utah-Nevada border, killing both passengers.

As you can see, wildfires are an increasingly complicated matter that poses threat to both forest ecosystems and human safety. Such a complex issue requires congressional and federal agency leadership, continuous technological advancements, and community involvement. Wildfire policy must be flexible in order to adapt to changes in climate, ecosystem threats and human development. With the increase in the number of wildfires, more funding for firefighting and prevention is required, which is difficult to do with a tight federal budget.

American Forests has been a long-time advocate for a number of programs and policies that address the numerous sides of wildfires. One of these — the Federal Land Assistance, Management, and Enhancement Act — enforces funding for wildfire prevention and suppression without dipping into other funding pools. Another is the Collaborative Forest Landscape Restoration Program that has as one of its main goals to reduce the costs of fire suppression in overgrown forests by proactively managing the forests before a fire hits. These and other programs are necessary to reduce the effects of out-of-control fires and introducing natural fire back into the forest life cycle. Fitting everything into the federal budget can be a tricky game, but it’s critical for the sake of forest communities and ecosystems that proactive approaches to wildfire management remain a funding priority.