Survivors of the 1871 fire in Peshtigo, Wisconsin– which vaporized 1.5 million acres of forest and killed 1500 people – reported a wall of flame five miles wide that traveled at90 miles per hour and tossed trains into theair.
Four decades later, an even larger infernoroared through the Rocky Mountains, scorchingan area the size of Connecticut. These epic wildfires, and similar ones inbetween, helped spawn the U.S. Forest Service,and forged its aggressive policy to not onlyprevent wildfires, but to smother any thatdid start by no later than 10 AM the next day.
For a time, this policy seemed to work – the annual number of fires and area burned plummeted between 1920 and 1970.But fewer fires led to denser, more flammable forests, packed with the combustible needles of young conifers and the tinder-dry branches of dead or dying trees.
So despite a continuing decline in the number of wildfires since 1970, the average blaze today burns hotter, faster, and bigger thanit used to, and the total area burned per year in the U.S. has more than doubled. Costs have flared too: the Forest Servicenow spends 52% of its annual budget on fireprevention and suppression, up from 16% just 20 years ago. What’s more, wildfires will keeping getting harder to tame as climate change turns forests hotter and drier, and homes edge further intofire-prone regions.
The good news is that we can prevent future wildfires from getting so wild by taming forests’fuel supply now. Essentially, this means letting some firesburn – or even starting them ourselves – when conditions aren’t too dry or windy, or selectively logging to thin out dangerously crowded growth. When and where we’ve used it, this strategy has made fires cooler, slower, and less destructive. For instance, when a blaze ripped through Okanogan County in Washington State in 2006, untamed swaths of forest lost 92% of theirtrees, while just 49% perished in areas recentlythinned by cutting and controlled burns.
And in 2002, parcels of recently-burned landput the brakes on wildfires racing acrossArizona’s pine forests. These and other successes have led forestmanagers to prescribe controlled burning formuch of the fire-prone western U.S., but few forests actually receive their recommended dosage.
That's largely because, while the U.S. Forest Service can in theory write prescriptions for every tract of land it manages, it relieson Congress for the money to fill them. And so far, Congress allocates the vast majority of fire management funds to emergency measures rather than preventive ones.
Plus, while emergency costs continue to surge, the Forest Service's budget doesn't, so firemanagers are often forced to steal money fromal ready meager fuel-reduction programs to fight this year’s blazes, thus fueling therisk that next year’s fires will be costlier, deadlier, and more disastrous.
So as counterintuitive as controlled burns may seem, it’s time for Congress to understand that, by not playing with fire, they ARE playing with fire.