Many of our forest types in the southwestern US burned at high frequency before land-use change (e.g. heavy grazing in the mid-1800s) and fire suppression (starting in the early 1900s) excluded fire from these ecosystems. A couple of wet periods in the early 1900s and lots of tree regeneration led to the dense forest conditions we see today that are capable of sustaining stand-replacing wildfire.
Research dating back to the 1970s has shown that excluding fire from these forests was a problem and we have known with lots of confidence since the 1990s that reducing tree density and the amount of dead vegetation in the forest is central to reducing the chance of these high-severity, stand-replacing wildfires. Forest managers used this research to design thinning and prescribed burning treatments to accomplish the goal of restoring fire and decreasing high-severity fire risk, but the pace and scale at which treatments were being implemented was not sufficient given the amount of forest requiring restoration.
Meanwhile, forest managers on the Gila National Forest and Yosemite and Sequoia-Kings Canyon National Parks started working to manage naturally occurring fires to restore the system. They did this in the backcountry where there was less chance of the fire causing harm to humans and their objective was to do this when weather and moisture conditions would allow the fire to burn in a way that is beneficial to restoring the forest.
While this was happening, many people (myself included) were advocating for more funding to land management agencies to accomplish more forest restoration. Fast forward to 2020 and Congress appropriated a significant amount of money for forest restoration. Yet, the scale of the problem means that there still is not enough money to restore all of the forest using thinning and prescribed burning. I did a back-of-the-envelope calculation after the legislation passed and estimated that if you wanted to thin and prescribed burn every acre of forest on the Santa Fe National Forest that used to burn regularly, it would cost over $1 billion. There is no way we are going to make that level of investment.
There are all kinds of other things that make thinning and burning treatments slow to implement and costly, too. The simple economics of having to pay to thin the trees because they are small diameter and wood products are cheaper to make from trees grown in productive places can mean thinning costs of $2500 per acre. Then there is the NEPA planning process and the surveys for archaeological sites and endangered species that are required before work can begin. Both take time and cost money. Meanwhile, if a lightening strike or camp fire starts a wildfire, land management agencies can mobilize tons of resources (billions of dollars per year) and suppress the fire. Big fires means bulldozers and dropping retardant from airplanes and all sorts of other things without any sort of environmental assessment. The punchline here is that the best thing we can do for the ecology of our fire-prone forests is to restore fire that helps maintain the system so we don’t need to mobilize suppression forces and fight against this process at all costs.
Escape prescribed fire
Restoring fire to forests is not without risk and we have to acknowledge the impacts of the Calf Canyon-Hermits Peak wildfire on the communities and ecosystems of northern New Mexico during spring 2022. My colleagues and I wrote a number of op-eds during the 2022 fire season and you can read those here:
Use all the tools - including fire
Use all the tools to improve forest health
Prescribed burning can work
Increasing the pace and scale
The other tool that forest managers have is choosing a different management approach when a lightning-caused fire starts. When a so-called natural ignition happens and weather and vegetation moisture conditions are right and the risks to things of value are low, managers can do what the Gila National Forest and Yosemite and Sequoia-Kings Canyon National Parks have been doing for decades – they can manage that fire to benefit the ecosystem. Federal policy has called it many things over the years. The most recent incarnation is called managing fire for resource benefit. Much to the chagrin of the higher-ups in land management agencies, everyone else calls it managed wildfire. No one has ever accused a big bureaucracy for choosing clear terminology to describe their actions.
Managed wildfire can accomplish the objectives of thinning and burning, but at a much larger scale and, typically, a much lower per acre cost. There is a huge misunderstanding in the public about managed fire and I will use the Comanche Fire, which I toured on 6 July, as a case study to explain managed fire in this post.
We here in the southwest have chosen to live in and depend upon flammable landscapes. Even if you live in the city, the water that flows out of your tap is coming from a watershed that is covered in fire-prone forest. It is our responsibility to learn about fire in our landscapes and contribute to helping reduce the risks posed by our past societal choices. We need to prepare our homes and ourselves for what this means and use the resources available to prepare.
A couple of resources for living in flammable landscapes:
How to prepare your home
How to construct an inexpensive air filter