By Scott Steen
Wildfire season is upon us. My fear is that the news will again carry stories of homes destroyed, communities affected, lives lost and thousands upon thousands of acres of forestland burned. The impacts of these fires will be especially devastating for the individuals, communities and wildlife directly affected by them. But while it is easy to think of forest fires as an evil in any circumstance, the real story of forests and fire is complicated.
Changing temperatures, drought, disease and massive insect outbreaks in forests across the nation are weakening forest ecosystems and making them more susceptible to wildfires of greater intensity. The situation is further complicated by strategies that, at first glance, might sound positive, but can leave forests — and nearby communities — vulnerable. Driven by public demand, controlled burning by the U.S. Forest Service and local authorities has been curtailed in some areas, forest thinning and salvaging of dead standing timber has been reduced and even relatively small fires are being suppressed, particularly in populated areas. These strategies have left forests choking with thick underbrush, dead trees and other plant materials that serve as fuel, contributing to the dramatic intensity of some of the nation’s worst wildfires. These megafires can devastate both communities and forests, burning with such ferocity that little natural forest regeneration occurs, even years after the fire has been extinguished.
Last year, wildfires burned more than nine million acres across the U.S., predominantly in the West and Southwest. The past decade has seen a tremendous increase in highly destructive wildfires. The damage wrought in 2012 in terms of acres burned has been matched only twice in the last 50 years — in 2006 and 2007. Currently, 65 million acres of national forestland — or a third of the U.S. Forest Service’s total holdings — remain at high or very high risk of catastrophic wildfires due to the buildup of fuel. Only a small fraction of this buildup is managed or removed through timber harvesting and fire in a given year.
Of course, fire is also a part of nature and critical to maintaining the health of many forested ecosystems. Humans have long used controlled, managed fires as a way to remove thick underbrush, create healthier habitat and lower the risk of large, destructive wildfires. The pilgrims found the Wampanoag people using this approach when they first arrived in Massachusetts.
Many trees and forests rely on fire as a natural part of their regeneration cycle, and the absence of fire can have profound effects on different ecosystems. For example, ponderosa pine forests in the Northwest and Intermountain West are well-adapted to low-intensity, high-frequency fires. Forests in the South, such as longleaf pine forests, depend on fire as part of the natural regeneration process. When fire intervals exceed 25 years, hardwood species replace the native pines in these forests, transforming the ecosystem. The same is true in northern oak-hickory forests. These trees have adapted thick bark and root sprouters to ensure their survival during fires. Without periodic fires, other species take over.
With both these benefits and the possible consequences of fire in mind, the Forest Service is creating management plans for a number of national forests that incorporate new science on climate change and fire suppression. These plans move away from mechanical thinning of forests and prescribed burns in favor of allowing naturally occurring fires to burn in a controlled manner to eliminate thick understory. The Forest Service’s new policies should help reduce the severity of fires in the American West, meaning more healthy fires from which forests can regenerate and fewer megafires that devastate communities.
Perhaps not surprisingly, a good part of American Forests’ work relates to fire. Over the past decade, more than a quarter of our forest restoration projects have been in fire-damaged forests. For instance, working with the Forest Service and other partners on the ground, we have planted more than 1.3 million trees in Florida’s Osceola National Forest following the massive 2007 Bugaboo Scrub Fire that destroyed more than 300,000 acres, and in California, we have planted more than one million trees since 2010 in 15 different wildfire restoration projects. And these are just two examples.
On the policy front, American Forests has been a key player in the Federal Land Assistance, Management and Enhancement Act (FLAME Act) Coalition, which supported the passage of the FLAME Act. This act created separate budgets for addressing emergency wildfires to prevent firefighting funds from having to be borrowed from other important programs — including fire prevention — in an emergency.
Fire is a fact of life for our forests and for us, but climate change and other factors are increasing both the frequency and intensity of megafires, particularly in the West, where the consequences have been tragic. At American Forests, we are working to ensure smarter fire policy and science, but we also realize our work in helping to restore fire-damaged forests is only likely to increase in the future.