Wildfires

5/1/14

Overview

For those who live in areas subject to fire, few things can be more frightening.  Join Active Minds as we as we address the issue of wildfires from a variety of perspectives.  We will take a look at how fires are fought once they are burning and the role of forest policy, weather, and newer challenges such as huge swaths of dead trees in many areas due to the pine beetle infestation.  We’ll also look at the role of fire in nature and how areas have recovered from devastating burns.

Key Lecture Points

  • Fire is a natural part of forest ecology, playing a rejuvenating role in keeping forests healthy.  But past forestry practices and the dry, hot weather attributed to climate change have created dense and flammable underbrush that ignites into wildfires more often and burns for longer periods, at hotter temperatures, consuming larger areas and creating a longer fire season. Wildfires of a size and intensity that only a decade ago were rare are now almost an annual occurrence.
  • After the 1910 “Big Burn” that devastated 3 million acres in Washington, Idaho, Montana and British Columbia and killed 87 people, the US Forest Service adopted a fire policy of suppression, which would be adopted by other Federal Agencies, including the National Park Service, established in 1916.  This policy remained in place until the 1960s when the Park Service stepped back from a total suppression policy and instead said that fires that started naturally would be allowed to burn themselves out without intervention as long as they didn’t threaten lives or property.  Additionally, the Park Service used controlled burns to remove excessive brush and to thin overcrowded trees and thus prevent more destructive fires.  This new policy of fire management was gradually adopted by other federal, state and local agencies.
  • As the wildlife-urban interface continues to grow, more Americans are living close to forests and in fire-prone areas, putting at risk their homes, their lives and the lives of firefighters when wildfires strike.  According to the U. S. Forest Service, 32% of US housing units and 10% of all land with housing are situated in the wildland-urban interface.  An example of this danger is the 2013 Black Forest Fire in Colorado Springs that destroyed more than 500 homes and killed 2 residents—the most destructive fire in Colorado history.
  • With more people building in fire-prone areas, the cost of fighting wildfires has more than tripled—a cost being paid by taxpayers.  For example, fighting wildfires consumes 1/3 of the Forest Service’s annual budget.  This raises the question as to whether society should be expected to pay for an individual’s decision to live in a fire-prone area and how much responsibility should be placed on the home owner for mitigation and fire prevention efforts.

Exploration Questions

  • How has our approach to fighting wildfires changed and why?
  • Why are wildfires more prevalent?
  • What policies would reduce the threat of wildfires?

Reflective Questions

  • Should there be laws requiring fire mitigation for people living in wooded areas?
  • Do you think fires in national forests should be allowed to burn and follow their natural courses?  Or suppressed at any cost?  Why?

More to Explore

Books for Further Reading

  • Jensen, Sara, Guy R. McPherson. Living with Fire: Fire Ecology and Policy for the Twenty-First Century. University of California Press, 2008. 180 pages. The authors discuss wildfires and the need to overhaul our policies and management of wildfires.
    Click here to order
  • Hanks, Sharon, Jennifer Snyder.  The Plan Ahead Handbook: Be Prepared in Case of Health, Fire or Natural Disaster/Evacuation Plan.  Seaboard Press, 2008. 48 pages.  This book offers a comprehensive list of all-important information you should have in the event of an accident, crisis or natural disaster.
    Click here to order