Forests & Fire
- Climate change, insect and disease outbreaks, and growth of invasive, less fire-resistant underbrush, have left many forests at an increased risk of uncharacteristically large and severe wildfires.
- Wildfires pose a significant danger to public health and safety.
- Studies have shown a continual increase in the number of acres burned in fires in the US since 1971; fires are becoming more frequent, more intense, and more expensive to suppress.
- While we support prescribed burning where it is warranted, the amount of carbon dioxide from controlled burns and wildfires alike must be controlled to prevent it from contributing to climate change.
Why We Care
Forest ecosystems are dynamic and complex. A disturbance to any part of the network can upset the delicate balance of relationships, and affect the entire ecosystem. Fire is unique in that it can be either a beneficial natural process or a devastating catastrophe.
A periodic burning can actually contribute to overall forest health. Because wildfires are a natural occurrence, many plants have adapted to them. In fact, some species can’t survive without fire. For example, lodgepole pines need the heat produced by wildfires to crack their cones open and release seeds for germination. Without this degree of heat, lodgepole pines would not be able to reproduce. Yet again, a careful balance is necessary. A fire that burns too intensely can still destroy the trees; cones, seeds, and all.
For quite some time, the United States’ federal fire policy focused on suppressing all fires in national forests to protect timber resources and rural communities. However, decades of fire exclusion have resulted in unusually dense forests in many areas, actually increasing the risk of intense wildfires. As suppression proved to often be more damaging than beneficial, federal policy turned to more practical measures, such as prescribed burns and forest thinning. Even these, however, must be practiced carefully to avoid damage to the ecosystem by artificially providing a process that would occur naturally.
American Forests partners with other organizations to protect the surviving trees on burned lands, and to restore forests, educating the public and key decision makers about the importance of these trees. Over the last 10 years, roughly 26 percent of our Global ReLeaf projects have restored forests damaged by fires.
The 2003 Cedar Fire, the largest wildfire in California’s recorded history, burned more than 280,000 acres, including 95 percent of the Cuyamaca Rancho State Park, just 50 miles east of San Diego. The fire was so intense that even after four years, little natural regeneration occurred. The park, once covered in coniferous and hardwood forests, and most noted for its recreational opportunities, watershed protection, and wildlife habitat, was threatened to be overrun with non-native species taking advantage of the ecosystem’s altered conditions.
In 2007, ConocoPhillips pledged $2.8 million to fund American Forests’ wildfire restoration project in this area, as part of a carbon offset settlement between the energy company and California Attorney General Jerry Brown. The ongoing Cuyamaca project has laid the groundwork to encourage forest restoration throughout the region.
At the federal level, American Forests has long advocated that decision makers in the US Forest Service, the Department of the Interior, and Congress should address wildfire threats and develop plans and policies for wildfire mitigation and prevention. This resulted in the establishment of the Federal Land Assistance, Management, and Enhancement Act (FLAME Act) Coalition, which supported the passage of the FLAME Act that would allow the federal government to enforce funding for larger emergency wildfires without taking away from other important projects. At the local level, we played a key role in the creation of the Community Wildfire Protection Plans, which call for collaboration between wildfire suppression groups, and federal, state, and local governments to address wildfires.
What You Can Do
- Send a letter to Forest Service Chief Tom Tidwell urging the agency to address wildfire in ways that consider the needs of all species.
- Does your area have a Community Wildfire Protection Plan? If not, write to your local Forest Ranger to suggest creating one. If there is a CWPP in place, read it. Has it taken the proper approaches to preventing wildfires in your area? For more information about how to prepare a CWPP for your community, click here.Then contact your local Forest Ranger to suggest any changes.
- Write to your elected representatives to support the National Forest Insect and Disease Emergency Act, which reduces the risk of wildfire through treatment of fire-sensitive areas.
- Educate your friends and family about forest fire prevention and stay informed about fires burning in your area.
- Donate to American Forests to help fund community outreach, research, and planting projects in burned areas.