Bark Alert: Spinning Fire

wildfire is good for forestsFriends of the Forest!

This is the worst forest fire year we have ever seen. Hundreds of thousands of acres have been devastated by the huge fires ravaging the West, and climate change is making it worse. The federal government has to act now to ensure that this type of unprecedented disaster never repeats.


What if I told you the number of acres burning this summer is not actually more than should be expected? What if the Forest Service policy of suppressing all fire ignitions wastes millions of federal dollars?  What if the media has it all wrong?

What if fire is good for the forest?

I’ve been talking a lot about forest fire these past few weeks and imagine that you have too. With the media filled with “incendiary” language, it can be hard to discern truth from rhetoric. I’ve shared a few science-based answers that I use when answering questions about wildlands fire come up. Read on, then take action by using this information to spark conversations with your friends and family about wildlands fire. Share your fire thoughts and conversations on Bark's Facebook page (or, if you don't Facebook, send them to me, and I'll make sure they get posted!).

For the forest,

Brenna Bell, Staff Attorney


P.S. Two awesome upcoming events: September's Bark About this Sunday to the proposed Pollalie Cooper timber sale area. Longtime Barker Lola Goldberg will lead the hike and share tips about how to pack and prepare for longer, overnight backpacking trips. Then, on Monday night, join us for a very special Ecology Club at the Bark office!

Q1: Does fire destroy forests?
A: Nope! Smokey got this one wrong. Fire ecologists recognize that fire is an essential part of most forest types and many species actually depend on fire for their survival. According to Dr. Dominick DellaSala, co-editor of The Ecological Importance of Mixed-Severity Fires: Nature’s Phoenix, there are countless ecosystem benefits of large and severe fires as, “the post-fire landscapes created by these fires are not ecological disasters, rather they are rare ecosystems that have a unique role to play in the long-term health of our forests.”   

Q2: Are fires burning larger and hotter because of a hundred years of fire suppression? 
A: Not necessarily. While a century of fire suppression has left specific ecosystems in conditions that are outside their natural range, this does not automatically mean a fire will burn more intensely. Fire ecologist Chad Hanson found, “contrary to popular misconception, areas that have missed the greatest number of natural fire cycles, due to fire suppression, are burning mostly at low-and moderate-intensity and are not burning more intensely than areas that have missed fewer fire cycles.”

The intensity of a fire is based both on the fire cycle of the area, and the specifics of each particular fire – with weather being the most important factor influencing fire behavior.

Q3: Is climate change resulting in larger, non-natural fires?
A: This has yet to be determined. It is true that the West is in a period of drought, resulting in more fires.  However, there was a similar drought from 1920-35, in which very large fires burned across the West. As both climate patterns and fire behavior are unpredictable, and the facts don’t yet establish a simple connection.

Despite the smoky haze in Portland (and accompanying media hysteria), this has not been a particularly severe fire year taken in the context of the last century. As of last week, approximately 8.5 million acres in the U.S. have experienced wildland fires, with 63% burning in remote Alaskan tundra. In comparison, in the U.S. in 1930 and 1931, over 50 million acres burned each year and during the 10-year period from the late 1920’s to the late 1930’s an average of 30 million acres burned every year.  

Q4: Because of climate change, shouldn’t fires be suppressed so that they don’t add additional carbon into the atmosphere? 
Wildland fire releases about 300 million metric tons of carbon dioxide a year, which may sound like a lot but is only 5% of the CO2 the U.S. releases annually through fossil fuel burning. Even the most severe fires transfer only about 15% of the forest’s carbon into the atmosphere.  The rest is returned to the soil or released via the respiration of decomposition in a natural cycle that replenishes the forest with nutrients and feeds new growth. In contrast, logging releases over 60% of the stored carbon in forests.

In addition, researchers recently found that the highest carbon sequestration levels were in forests that had previously experienced considerable occurrence of high-intensity fire.

Q5: If fire is good for the forest, why is the Forest Service spending so much money fighting it?  
As observed by OSU professor John Bailey, "right now we're spending billions of dollars to prevent something that is going to happen sooner or later, whether we try to stop it or not, and something that can assist us in sound land management.”

Why is this the case? Because the U.S. Forest Service has a policy of suppressing all fire ignitions outside of designated wilderness, coupled with a blank check from the Federal Treasury for firefighting. These two policies combine to create a reactive system that wastes millions of dollars, and sometimes firefighter lives, to fight fires that may have significant ecological benefit.   

Q6: How should the government plan for wildland fire management on public lands?
We need to learn to co-exist with fire! For individuals and communities who live in the wildland-urban interface, fire is a real threat to home and livelihood, and this could be proactively addressed by making more firewise homes and towns. The federal government could help support these efforts with technical and financial support.

The Forest Service could also end its outdated full suppression policy, and make plans to use wildland fire as a management tool to restore fire-dependent ecosystems.  This, coupled with fixing the broken “blank-check” approach to fighting fires on National Forests, would result in a much more grounded approach to wildland fire management.  

If this Q&A sparked your interest in learning more about wildland fire science and policy, read the excellent testimony Dr.  Michael Medler from Firefighters United for Safety, Ethics and Ecology recently gave the U.S.  Senate Committee on Energy and Natural Resources.