On Aug. 20, 1910, whiplashing winds suddenly swept through the northern Rockies, creating what one observer called “a veritable red demon from hell.” Flames reported to be “hundreds of feet high” swept through drought-stricken national forests, which destroyed over 3 million acres of forest,
8 million board feet of timber and killed at least 85 people. The fire was known as the “Big Burn” and would change the newly established U.S. Forest Service policy towards fighting forest fires for the rest of the 20th century.
Initially, the Forest Service took the approach of “light burning” to control forest fires, but after the “Big Burn,” the policy now was total fire suppression. Fire prevention became the “No. 1 job of American foresters,” which led to the “10 a.m. rule.” Any fires noticed would be put out by 10 a.m. the next day by firefighters. Forests were now looked at as “crops that need to be harvested, not burned to waste.”
The same year the Forest Service started to carry out policies of total fire suppression, a California timber owner, George Hoxie, wrote an article for Sunset magazine arguing the worse thing we could do to prevent future fires was suppression. Instead, controlled burning was needed. “We had best adopt fire as out servant; otherwise it will be our master,” he said.
Hoxie turned out to be right. By the 1960s, as fire research advanced, it was recognized that “prescribed burning” and “let it burn” policies were needed to reduce the risks of fires and increase biodiversity in our forests. But in 1988 with the catastrophic fires in Yellowstone National Park, President Ronald Reagan proclaimed “let it burn” as “cockamamie” and had fire suppression policies put back into place.
This seesaw between fire suppression and prescribed burns, along with the debate between environmentalists and logging projects on public lands, has pretty much defined our forest fire management policies since the founding of the Forest Service in 1905. The problem is that both of these policies haven’t solved or slowed down the recent fierceness of our forest fires. Between 2000 and 2016, the number of acres burned in the United States was 11 times greater than what it was from 1983 to 1999.
Our fires are hotter, faster and destroy more acres. This is represented in the cost we pay to fight them. In 1995,
16 percent of the Forest Service budget was used to fight fires. In 2015, it was equal to 50 percent. It is projected that this percentage will only increase.
So, where do we go? Though logging can be effecting in helping to prevent fires, the conditions needed are restrictive. Evidence has not shown conclusively that fires burn less intensively in logged forests as compared to unlogged areas. Luck also plays an important part. Since 1999, the likelihood of fire hitting a logged and thinned out area before it becomes overgrown again was estimated to be only
7 percent by researchers at the University of Montana. This does not mean that fuel reduction treatment cannot help, but it will not be the magic bullet that saves our forests and communities.
The reality is that with population growth encroaching around our national forests and changes to our climate, we are entering a new era of forest management that has a lot of uncertainty. We need to recognize there’s more that we don’t know than what we do know. Our future will be different from the past, and we need to break away from the old and tiresome debate between environmentalists and loggers that has been going on for decades. And no matter what your view is on whether climate change is priming forest fires, there are two things we do know: the world is getting hotter and more flammable.
Our response should be more investments in scientific research, educating the public about their role in preventing and protecting themselves from fires, and understanding how population growth and climate change are creating a new fire environment that will challenge us. Yet, there is less money in the Forest Service budget for educating the public and scientific research than ever before. Time for a change?
Richard P. F. Holt is professor of economics at Southern Oregon University and co-editor of “Post Keynesian and Ecological Economics: Confronting Environmental Issues.”