Speaking of hot stuff: Much of the West is on fire, not excluding our own Colorado. Here’s why. Excerpt:
In the U.S., forest fire management policies date back to the 1880s, shortly after Yellowstone National Park was established in 1872. After a roughly 50-year period in which some wildfires were allowed to burn, in 1935, the U.S. Forest Service formally adopted the “10 a.m. policy.” All forest fires were supposed to be put out by the morning after they were first spotted. To enlist Americans in these efforts to suppress forest fires, in 1944, the U.S. Forest Service introduced Smokey Bear, who would go on to become one of the most iconic cartoon animals of all time.
For over 75 years, Smokey has taught generations of Americans to be responsible environmental stewards with his admonishment, “Only YOU can prevent forest fires!” But Smokey’s message is predicated on a faulty assumption—that forest fires are inherently bad for people and the environment.
This assumption goes against the Traditional Ecological Knowledge of many Native American tribes who have long used fire as a crucial part of land stewardship practices. In recent years, even the U.S. Forest Service has come around to this understanding and now supports the use of prescribed burns to return forests to a healthier state.
Innovative research by archaeologists working in New Mexico points to the same conclusion: Forests across the American West are desperately out of ecological balance, and federal fire suppression policies are partly to blame. But how have these archaeologists actually gone about providing convincing evidence for this claim?
In other words, one of the major causes of these wildfires is decades of dumb-as-dirt management.
These Western coniferous forests evolved with fire as a necessary part of their life-cycle. Some conifers, such as lodgepole pines, are pyrophytic, meaning their cones won’t open to disperse seed without first having their outer coating of resin burned off. Poor forest management in the form of over-enthusiastic fire suppression actually keeps these trees from reproducing.
But this seeding issue isn’t the cause, just a result. The worst unintended outcome of decades of fire suppression has been the buildup of forest litter, which is essentially kindling. Add to that big tracts of trees killed by invasive beetles, and you’ve got trouble waiting for a discarded cigar butt, a misplaced firework or a lightning strike.
We shouldn’t prevent forest fires unless they threaten property; even then, they should just be contained to (hopefully) protect people’s homes and businesses.
Otherwise this endless cycle of out of control wildfires will continue.