"Let it burn" versus "put it out."

50,000 acre Hog-Fong Fire. Klamath National Forest 1977
When I worked for the Forest Service back in the 1970’s, we put out ALL fires. Big ones, little ones, ones started by lightning, ones started by humans. Total fire suppression back then was still considered essential. Not only that, but a 50,000 acre fire was considered monumental.

Within ten years however, biologists had a new take on fire ecology. Without fire, forests grew thick and impenetrable. So thick, that when a fire did start, huge conflagrations (hundreds of thousands of acres) engulfed forests leaving nothing but sterile soil and little hope of recovery.

The “let it burn” policy was implemented in the 1980’s. The idea was to let fires burn naturally if they were caused by natural events and if they threatened no people, homes or other structures. This all sounded good on paper. In practice, though, not so good. In fact it’s proven to be nearly impossible to implement. Why? Because we’ve been putting fires out for so long, the idea of “Oh, just let it burn itself out” ends up creating catastrophic fires that can’t be put out at all. Most wildfires now either die out because there’s nothing left to burn, they are rained out, or they meet up with natural firebreaks such as large expanses of rock or pavement.

A prime example is what happened in 1988 to Yellowstone National Park after summer storms sparked multiple blazes. Because these fires were lightning caused, officials chose to monitor them instead of fight them. However, high winds, added to a drought-stressed landscape, in no time caused 150,000 acres to disappear in twenty-four hours. Nearly 10,000 firefighters were dispatched, but even they couldn’t contain the monster. It took months to put the fires completely out, but not until over a million acres were scorched and 120 million dollars were spent.

Fire officials had to admit the “let it burn” plan wasn’t working.

In 2009 a new policy was introduced. Instead of letting fires burn or putting them all out, a more logical approach is in practice. It took that long for officials to figure out that we don’t have that much wilderness left to let fires burn. I’ve been saying that for years! Now they are looking at all of the components affecting the decision to fight the fire or not, including the encroaching of humans on wilderness edges.

Let’s face it, who wouldn’t jump at the chance to build a home with a protected forest in your backyard if you could afford to? What people don’t understand, however, is this comes with a price. Just like those who build in hurricane, flood, tornado or earthquake territory: you have to be prepared for loss. What’s different about building adjacent to wilderness areas is those homeowners expect the Government to protect their homes from a wildfire, when they really have no right to. The tragic part is that although wildland firefighters are not trained in structural firefighting, they want to help, and some have lost their lives trying to save private structures.

Then there is the public outcry over the loss of our precious National Forests and Parks, which I think has validity. Should we really be letting what little we have left go up in smoke? It’s not like there is plenty of scenic lands left to convert into new parks. I’m looking at that scenario right outside my living room window. The 2005 Florida Fire in the Santa Rita Mountains destroyed 75% of this unique “Sky Island” when the Forest Service opted for “let it burn” instead of suppression. I’ve hiked to the burned areas recently, and recovery is spotty, if at all. Certainly I will never see majestic ponderosas and Doug firs in those areas in my lifetime. Was letting it burn a smart move, considering how few acres compose the Santa Rita range?

Because the wildland-urban interface conflict and the ‘let’s save what we’ve got’ stance are a major concern, the new policy is designed to look closer at what dictates managing a fire and when to let the fire manage itself. This is not going to be easy. Will wildland firefighters now be trained to battle structure fires? Will structural firefighters now be called to battle forest fires? Should we put out fires in areas where not putting them out can completely destroy an entire ecosystem?

I am glad a new policy is in effect, but the challenges are still great. You can’t undo 100+ years of firefighting in one fire season or many fire seasons. Fire management practices are changing and will continue to change. The focus now must be on fuel management (thinning and prescribed burns) more than fire suppression, but even that takes years to accomplish. The answers are not cut and dry, and they are not easy. In the meantime, catastrophic wildfires will continue, and millions of acres will be lost. Let’s just hope we get a handle on it all before there’s no forest left for our children’s children to enjoy.

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