Forest Fire: Friend Or Foe?
Wild forest fires strike in every season of the year and in most parts of the United States, but
many people do not understand the facts about these very important fires. Their only knowledge
of these great fires comes from Smokey the Bear, who, for many years has heralded fire
prevention and suppression with the slogan, “only you can prevent forest fires”. In recent years, a
question has arisen about forest fires; should humans use excessive fire prevention to fight forest
fires or should the forest be allowed to burn, unhindered? The goal of this project is to present
the facts about forest fires, to present the views of the opposing sides of the fire suppression
argument, and to attempt to answer the question: forest fires, Friend or Foe?
Forest fires can either be seen as one of nature’s most destructive forces or as one of
nature’s wonders. Whichever view one may hold, the facts and truths remain the same. In order
to further evaluate the argument ensuing over forest fire suppression one must examine the simple
facts about the fires themselves and the way they affect the environment.1 These facts must be
examined objectively and with an open mind.
The United States contains over 700 million acres of forest. Many of these forests are
found in Alaska and throughout the United States in National Parks and wildlife reserves. Still, a
good percentage of the forest is populated by humans and contains people’s investments. Over
the last five years the United States averaged around 495 wild fires per year for a total of 258,962
burnt acres per year. In 1997 alone their were 6,425 wild fires which accounted for the
destruction of 1,632,224.7 acres of forest. The following graph shows the number of fires along
with their causes for 1997.
As one can see the majority of fires were started by lightning. The rest of the fires were
set by human factors. Compared to 1997, the past year’s wild fires were few and very small. In
1998 there were only 437 reported wild fires. These fires accounted for the burning of over
61,583 acres, a small percentage of the 1997 wildfires. This major decrease is mainly due to the
effects of el niño and la niña. These weather phenomenon were responsible for the increase in the
Santa Ana winds in California and were also responsible for reasonably hot, dry, arid weather
throughout the country. Nevertheless fire suppression played an important role in limiting the
amount of fires during 1998.
Wildfires in the United States have long been viewed as detrimental to the ecosystem.
However, recent studies have shown that the forest ecosystems need fire in order to survive and
flourish. Forest fires are now seen as nature’s way of cleaning house or refurbishing itself.
Hundreds of years of extreme fire suppression have led to a problem in the forest ecosystems.
Without fire, woody debris has accumulated on the forest floor. The debris has become dry and
arid and is now the prefect fuel for wild fires. When uncontrollable wild fires do occur the results
can be catastrophic, due to the woody debris on the ground these fires can burn exceptionally hot,
for longer times, and may even kill fire-tolerant vegetation species.2 Furthermore, “some plants
that require fire for reproduction may be endangered by the absence of fire.”3 These types of
plants produce cones that can release seeds only when temperatures reach a height only found
inside the depths of a fiery inferno.
In order to combat the effects of forest fire suppression, the U.S. Department of Interior
along with the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Association , the National Parks Service, and the National
Forestry Fire Service have implemented controlled burning or “prescribed burning” of the forest.
This effort is being made in hope of preventing large, extremely hot wildfires, and in hope of
resynthesizing the natural pattern of fires in the wild. Over the past five years an average of
224,575 acres have been burnt using this method. In 1998, 1,334 prescribed fires were set for a
total of over 277,890 acres of burnt forest. (These statistics are not included in the averages and
wildfire statistics found earlier in this report.)
Although the facts seem fairly straight forward the solution to the wild fire situation
remains a question. Are forest fires friend or foe? This seems to be a question that is not so
easily answered. On one side of the issue are the many businessmen, economists, and land owners
who feel forest fires are “a bane rather than a benefit”4. On the other side of the issue are the
many ecologists and environmentalists who claim “If you want a healthy forest, then you want
forest fires. You want them often and you want them to be widespread.”5 By examining each
side’s stance on forest fires, when to suppress wildfires, and the use of prescribed burning one can
gain a better understanding of each side’s opinions and views. One can also hope to find a
solution to the question at hand.
Wildfire suppression has become increasingly difficult in recent years. Many people are
creating permanent homes within the confines of the forest. Others use the forest for their
livelihood and some own forest land for its value. These people want to protect their investments
and have come to view fire as the enemy. Fire to most Americans is destructive, damaging, and
sometimes lethal. When fire strikes, lumber companies loose trees and money, homeowners loose
there possessions, and property, land is devalued, and firefighters loose their lives protecting
Those who see fire as a destructive force call for extreme fire suppression. Often their
views are shaped by history’s stereotypical image of fire. Urban fires are seen as damaging and
destructive, because life and private property are often lost. This has caused a “stop the fire at all
costs” mentality to appear in the public’s mind. The public who are uneducated, employed by
governmental agencies that depend on fire suppression, contractors who supply equipment to
these agencies, the news media who use fire as a great story, and those people who own property
in the forest are in favor of fire suppression at all cost. These people see the glamour of the
firefighter running out of a blazing forest just before it reaches spontaneous combustion; they see
the great news story; or they see the money involved in these fires, and they want the hundreds of
years of fire suppression to continue. Fire is seen as evil and many people choose to ignore the
facts about the benefits of forest fires.
What most people do not know is that in order for the forest to survive, fire is needed.
Before man, the forest and its fires ran their own natural course. Modern man disrupted this
course through their hatred of fire. They changed this abiotic factor before they knew how it
would affect the biota within the forest ecosystems. People need to be made aware of the
facts.(Which have already been mentioned.) People need to realize that in order to maintain the
beauty of the forest, which they were trying to protect with fire suppression and prevention, it
must be allowed to burn.
However, allowing the forest to burn does not mean letting the forest burn uncontrollably.
This would result in extreme crown fires. That is fires that ignite both the forest floor and the
trees which in a normal fire usually remain unharmed. This results in another question of when to
use fire suppression and when to allow a fire to burn. The Department of Interior, which often
sides in favor of fire suppression, has divided fires into two distinctive categories of prescribed
fires and wildfires. There policy states they will suppress all wildfires, which will not be used as a
tool in managing a forest. The USDA Forest Service, which often sides with environmentalists,
states that they will allow wild fires to burn until they threaten private property or human lives and
only use prescribed burning when wildfires do not supply enough fire to benefit the forest
properly. While neither side can decide when to extinguish fires, they do agree that prescribed
burning is necessary.
Environmentalist and ecologist have stated that in order to protect the forest prescribed
burning must gradually be introduced into the forest ecosystem to synthesize fires that would have
occurred naturally without human interruption. Prescribed burning is even seen as a method of
fire suppression due to the fact that it cuts down on the amount of dead debris on the forest floor.
Most people, both those in favor of extreme fire suppression and those against it agree on
prescribed burning. A question still remains over when to use prescribed burning and the best
places to use it. Not everyone agrees and many of the decisions are left to the people actually
doing the prescribed burns.
The answer to the question, Forest fire, friend or foe, is not an easy one to find. While
forest fires are good for the forest and do benefit the environment, they can also be dangerous and
deadly. The answer seems to be in a compromise between the two side of the issue. This
compromise comes in the form of prescribed burning. It is the one element that each side agrees
upon. It is an efficient method of preventing extremely hazardous crown fires and also allows the
forest to regenerate. The problem is then not with fire prevention but with fire suppression.
Seeing that over half of the wildfires on record are started by man most people want to put them
out as quickly as possible. However some people feel that they should be allowed to burn until
they endanger human property or lives, but wildfire is unpredictable.
We feel that the best solution would be to suppress all wildfires as quickly as possible
seeing that they often can become uncontrollable and deadly at a minutes notice. Prescribed
burning should then be implemented where necessary. If an area is particularly cluttered with dry
debris it should be dealt with in a controlled setting before it needs to be dealt with in an
uncontrolled setting. This solution would save both property and forest. It would be a
compromise between the two opposing sides of the argument. However compromise is difficult
and as of today there is no set regulation on fire suppression and prescribed burning. Different
agencies complete these tasks differently and until they can all decide upon one set course of
action the debate over forest fire, friend or foe, will continue.
Written By Daniel Boardman and Julie Ribeiro
Information for this project was taken in part from the following locations.
Allison-Brunnell, Steve. “Stressed out about Being Fire-Free.”
Smoke Jumpers: They Know Fires
Fire Ecology Homepage
USDA Forest Service, Oregon and Washington Profile, Fire in the Ecosystem
United States Dept. of Interior
US Fish & Wildlife Fire Statistics
US Forest Service. - "Smokey Says"