If you’ve been thinking that this wildfire season has been pretty intense, you’re right. The first half of 2011 saw more acreage burned than ever before — almost a million acres more. But we hit that record with nearly 5,000 fewer fires than the last 10 years’ average for the January-July period.

Could it be because of record dry periods in the South? Unusually dense forests? Disease-ravaged areas? We don’t have answers yet as to why fewer fires are causing more destruction, but one thing is clear: fires are burning hotter and more intensely. With recent devastating fires in Texas and Washington, the second half of the year appears to be just as grim as the first. In order to combat these blazes, we need to take a new look at how we prevent forest fires, how we fight them and how we better manage the wildlands where they happen.

Have we managed fires better in the past? Not necessarily.

A Brief (Very Brief) History of Fire Policy in the United States
In 1936, the U.S. Forest Service adopted the “10 A.M. Policy,” meaning all wildland fires needed to be contained and controlled by 10 a.m. on the day following their initial reports. This seemingly arbitrary deadline lead to a singular plan: fire suppression. And that plan stuck — for the next 42 years.

In 1943, then-U.S. Forest Service Chief Lyle Watts hit on the idea of borrowing from Native American and European practices and gave national forests permission to use prescribed burns to reduce the underbrush and other flammable contributors to fires.

By 1968, the National Park System turned earlier policies on their heads and officially recognized that forest fires play a key role, and not necessarily a negative one, in forest and wildlife habitat management. Over the next two decades, new principles, practices, standards and training were laid out by the Secretaries of the Interior and Agriculture that provided guidelines to state and local organizations, communities and agencies on how to prevent and handle forest fires.

Is this 1968 policy working?
Not if the last decade is any indication. 2000 bore witness to devastating fires that threatened treasured landmarks like Yellowstone National Park, triggering a series of changes to fire policy.

In a 2000 special report to the president, four key recommendations were made: increase community involvement in helping fight and prevent fires, work to remove hazardous fuels from forests, restore fire-damaged landscapes and provide additional resources for firefighting. This report formed the basis of a 10-year fire strategy plan, a plan that is still being tweaked and implemented.

While federal and state governments and local communities worked to reduce the risk of wildfires across the country, blazes continued to consume large areas of forest. Firefighting costs skyrocketed. With almost 50 percent ($2 billion) of the U.S. Forest Service’s budget annually going toward firefighting, American Forests advocated for the passage of Federal Land Assistance, Management and Enhancement Act (FLAME Act).

The goal of this act was to create separate budgets for emergency wildfire suppression by the Department of the Interior (DOI) and the Department of Agriculture (USDA). This meant that instead of firefighting funds being borrowed from other areas of those department’s budgets, such as fire prevention and land management activities, special funds could be directed to firefighting when the need arose. FLAME also requested that DOI and USDA identify the most cost-effective methods for fire management to recognize preventative, as well as suppression, activities. The FLAME Act was signed into law in October 2009 as Title V in the Interior, Environment, and Related Agencies Appropriations Act, 2010.

The passage of FLAME was a big step toward assisting with the suppression of wildfire, and now, equal attention can be paid to preventing fires before they start. As part of the FLAME Act, the Wildland Fire Leadership Council issued a report to Congress that contained recommendations to “work to control invasive species, manage wildlife habitat, implement fire prevention and conservation education programs, landowner assistance education, fire management, and management of insect and disease issues.”

This is a step in the right direction. The past has taught us that suppression alone is not sufficient. Nor is fire prevention, without sufficient budget. A comprehensive wildfire management strategy needs congressional support (i.e. money) and oversight.

And we can’t forget the complicating, environmental factors. The fact that more than 100 million acres are suffering from invasive plant infestations and the increasing spread of tree-killing insects like the emerald ash borer, make forests riper for the devastation of fire. Add in the effects of climate change and other forest issues, and you have a litany of things that must be addressed to help diminish the number of devastating wildfires.

This year so far, the Wallow Fire in Arizona and New Mexico, the Los Conchos Fire near Los Alamos, New Mexico, and the widespread Texas fires have cost hundreds of millions of dollars of damage to property, crops and livestock, to say nothing of the devastation to wildlife and future consequences of soil erosion from the loss of trees to our water supplies.

It won’t be easy, but without financial support for an increasingly comprehensive strategy, 2011 may just signal the start to a decade of hotter, more intense fires across the country that will affect a growing — and alarming — number of acres of America’s forests and their inhabitants and will compound the costs of dealing with their consequences.

To read more about American Forests’ wildfire work, visit our policy section.