By editorial board • 

Fighting fire with fire is only answer in West’s forestlands

Terrestrial vegetation began to emerge about 420 million years ago, when oxygen levels rose enough to begin supporting aerobic as opposed to anaerobic life.

Those rising oxygen levels soon combined with two other necessary ingredients, combustible carbon-rich plant material and an ignition source such as dry lightning or volcanic activity, to introduce naturally occurring wildland fires into our ecology.

The planet’s blanket of surface vegetation swiftly adapted to survive and, in many cases, thrive. So did the animal life subsequently emerging to feed on the rich new food source.

When humans came along about 12,000 years ago, they initially joined in finding ways to adapt or even benefit from wildfire. Eventually, they learned to turn it into a valuable tool in support of hunting and farming.

But the march of colonization, urbanization and technology began to increasingly destroy the natural balance. Gaining force in the 19th and 20th centuries, it served to turn wildfires into a growing threat.

Triggered by a swift-moving fire that burned expanses of Montana, Idaho and Washington in 1910, the U.S. Forest Service adopted a strategy of immediate, total and universal suppression. It crisscrossed federal timberland with lookout towers for spotting, roads for access and teams for suppression. 

Following several serious fire seasons in the 1930s, it went further. It committed to extinguishing every wildland fire by 10 the morning after it was spotted.

Based on growing scientific evidence, the agency reversed course in the 1970s. It began to turn fire into a management tool and limit suppression to blazes posing imminent danger.

But public opinion and political thought never fully came around. Combined with climate change producing hotter, drier conditions, that has produced a spate of more frequent, costly and destructive fires, particularly in the more heavily vegetated and less heavily populated West.

We re-published an Oregonian article last Friday that offers the best prescription — mechanical thinning followed by carefully controlled prescribed burns as conditions permit.

Because of overly liberal suppression, many of our forests have become choked with highly combustible understories. If they aren’t cleared, both natural and prescribed burns tend to burn too hot and move too fast to be effectively managed.

People don’t like to see trees cut, even in stands that have become unnaturally dense. And they don’t like to see the sky turn black from smoke as trees burn. But life is full of compromises, and this in one we must make.

Comments

Don Dix

When it comes to forest management, environmentalists have had their way for more than 30 years. It doesn't take any form of genius to know clearing the underbrush has always been the proper solution. But the environmental lobby can't see past the trees. And then 'global warming', oops 'climate change', gets the blame for the increase in intensity of wildfires. Common sense has never held any form of influence in the mind of the tree hugger.

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