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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 others “property”.

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
Biomass Burning
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"