Monster Wildfires are Preventable, by Thomas M. Bonnicksen, Ph.D.

A monster fire in Arizona is devouring trees and houses with unprecedented ferocity. It has already consumed 300,000 acres of forest and forced 30,000 people to evacuate their homes. This is just one of 17 big fires scorching the West. So far, they have burned nearly twice as many acres as were consumed at this point in the record fire year of 2000. Since 1990, wildfires charred over 40 million acres, destroyed more than 4000 homes, and cost $5 billion to fight. These tragic losses are growing worse each year because of the misguided belief of many environmentalists that all fires are good and management is bad.

On the contrary, most of today’s fires are bad and management is the only way to stop them. Fires now look like battlefields when they burn. When a fire finally stops, it leaves a desolate landscape scared by erosion and pitted with craters that formed where tree roots burned. The blackened corpses of animals and fallen trees litter the ground and standing dead trees form a ghostly skeleton of the former forest. This is not natural.

Historically, fire was part of America’s forests, but not the monster fires of today. Hot fires burned only a few types of forest, and then only infrequently. Most forests burned often and gently. The flames were low in a gentle fire, creeping through grass and pine needles, leaving most large trees unharmed, and only briefly flaring up in scattered log piles, brush, or thickets. These fires kept historic forests open, patchy, diverse, and safe from monster fires.

What went so terribly wrong? Everyone knows the simple answer: too much fuel. More than a century ago, we began protecting forests from fire. We did not know that lightning fires kept them thin. More recently, we adopted an anti-management philosophy that protects forests from people. This ignores 12,000 years of history in which Native Americans doubled the number of fires by using them as a tool to keep forests open and productive.

Now logs and branches clutter the ground and trees grow so thick that it is difficult to walk through many forests. It is not surprising that the gentle fires of the past have become the destructive monsters of the present.

Fuel is part of the problem, but there is more to the story of what went wrong. Unlike the image of historic forests promoted by anti-management advocates, which depicts old trees spread like a blanket over the landscape, a historic forest was patchy. It looked more like a quilt than a blanket. Each patch consisted of a group of trees of about the same age, some young patches, some old patches, or meadows depending on how many years passed since fire created a new opening where they could grow.

The variety of patches in historic forests helped to contain hot fires. Most patches of young trees, and old trees with little underneath did not burn well and served as firebreaks. Still, chance led to fires skipping some patches. So, fuel built up and the next fire burned a few of them while doing little harm to the rest of the forest. Thus, most historic forests developed an ingenious pattern of little firebreaks that kept them immune from monster fires.

Today, the patchiness of our forests is gone, so they have lost their immunity to monster fires. Fires now spread across vast areas because we let all patches grow thick, and there are few younger and open patches left to slow the flames. That is what is happening throughout the West.

This is even more serious because monster fires create even bigger monsters. Huge blocks of seedlings that grow on burned areas become older and thicker at the same time. When it burns again, fire spreads farther and creates an even bigger block of fuel for the next fire. This cycle of monster fires has begun. Today, the average fire is nearly double the size it was in the last two decades and it may double again.

What should we do? We can thin little trees and use prescribed burns to reduce fuels, but that is not enough. We must use history as a guide and restore the natural immunity of our forests to monster fires. That means cutting whatever trees are necessary, big or small, to recreate the patchiness and diversity of historic forests that kept fires gentle and helpful.

It is easy to do. Foresters have the knowledge to restore our forests. They can do it using logging, thinning, and prescribed burning. Management has the added advantage of creating jobs, producing forest products, and generating revenue to cover the cost. If we act now we can stop the monster fires while also creating forests that rival the beauty and sustainability of historic forests.

Dr. Bonnicksen is Professor of Forest Science at Texas A&M University and author of the book America’s Ancient Forests: From the Ice Age to the Age of Discovery published in 2000 by John Wiley & Sons, Inc. He also serves on the National Center for Public Policy Research Advisory Board.

The National Center for Public Policy Research is a communications and research foundation supportive of a strong national defense and dedicated to providing free market solutions to today’s public policy problems. We believe that the principles of a free market, individual liberty and personal responsibility provide the greatest hope for meeting the challenges facing America in the 21st century.