Forest Managers: We're Just Making Wildfires Worse

Ninety-eight percent of wildfires are extinguished as soon as possible. That's bad.

It's an old warning, but one that's become only more prescient as wildfires increasingly become a foreground fact of life in the United States: Forest fires should be managed, not vanquished.

To be sure, the US Forest Service and other agencies have gotten better at this over the past couple of decades, most visibly through controlled burn programs. But, as a panel of land managers and researchers from several Western states argue in this week's issue of Science, fire management reforms have still largely failed: 98 percent of the time, wildfires are suppressed before they reach 120 hectares (12,000 acres) in size and have had little chance to consume fuel.

The reason is simple enough and has nothing to do with policy. Putting out small fires is cheap.

Wildfires are normal, and they should be treated as such.

But killing fires when they're tiny serves a single purposeā€”putting out a tiny fire. There's no consideration of the larger wildfire regime, and where a small fire might have grown to consume some of the vast stockpiles of dead wood clogging up mismanaged forests, it remains ready to burn another day. More fuel accumulates on top of it. And more and more and more.

Eventually, a fire event occurs that is not among those 98 percent of fires. This is a cataclysmic wildfire storm of the sort we're watching this week in California as the Valley and Butte fires continue on their 150,000 acre reigns of terror. When fuel is left to accumulate for years and years, there is pretty much only one possible outcome.

Quashing small fires is a delaying tactic in the same sense that ignoring a cancer symptom is a delaying tactic. It's a dangerous illusion.

Image: US Fish and Wildlife

"The 2 percent of wildfires that escape containment often burn under extreme weather conditions in fuel-loaded forests and account for 97 percent of fire-fighting costs and total area burned," the group writes. "Accumulated fuels in dry forests need to be reduced so that when fire occurs, rather than 'crowning out' and killing most trees, it is more likely to burn along the surface at low-moderate intensity, consuming many small trees and restoring forest resilience to future drought and fire."

There are two main answers to this, according to the authors. The first involves both increasing prescribed burns (intentionally-set fires, e.g. "managed wildfire") and allowing some wildfires, particularly those in deep wilderness areas and other protected lands, to burn, given the right weather conditions. The second is mechanical thinning, which is just what it sounds like.

It's all easier said than done, of course. "For individual [national forests], there is little economic incentive to change because fire suppression is steadfastly financed through dedicated congressional appropriations, which are augmented with emergency funding, whereas fuels reduction and prescribed burning costs come out of a limited budget allotted to each [forest] and is often borrowed to cover wildfire suppression costs," the authors write.

"With these deterrents, 'battling' fire and 'only you can prevent wildfire' campaigns have more traction than recognizing that many severe fires result from accrued management decisions," the paper continues. "This skewing of agency motivation also distorts economic, insurance, and local regulatory incentives that influence development in fire-prone regions."

Over the next decade, 120 national forests across the United States are due to revise their fire management plans. As the panel notes, this makes for a great opportunity for the public to push for making needed changes: retraining some fire crews in fire management instead of fire suppression, recalculating the distribution of federal funds for wildfire management, and just a general move away from treating fires as "exceptional events."

Wildfires are normal, and they should be treated as such.