“To let fires burn in July and August is ridiculous.” — Idaho Gov. Cecil Andrus in the New York Times, Sept. 22, 1988
Rich Fairbanks walks a forest trail through a stretch where two wildfires have burned in the last six years.
The ground is mostly bare, and the tree trunks are striped with black, scorched bark.
Fairbanks has worked for the U.S. Forest Service as a wildland firefighter and as a wilderness advocate. He is thrilled by all this. He points up at the green crowns of the trees with delight.
“Some beautiful hardwoods in here!” He exclaims. “Look at those canyon live oaks – really nice! They all made it.”
“What they had was a very gentle kind of fire,” Fairbanks said. “It just all around was a good fire in many ways.”
This may sound like an odd way to talk at a time when catastrophic wildfires are burning throughout the arid West, literally causing death, widespread destruction and choking smoke that hangs like a funeral shroud over many communities.
But a variety of forest experts say that one of the best ways to reduce the threat of these mega-blazes is to use fire itself. They say we need to increase the pace of prescribed fire and let some wildfires continue to burn when it’s safe to do so.
Of course, there’s not nearly as much political support for letting fires burn as there is for putting fires out.
“Our knowledge of fire proceeds forward, and there’s always a lag between what we know and what the general public understands,” Fairbanks said. “And even lagging behind that is what the politicians are willing to act on.”
The politics of a smoky future
John Bailey, a forestry professor and fire expert at Oregon State University, said contrary to what Smokey Bear and the U.S. Forest Service once told us, “there is no smoke-free future” in western U.S. forests. We either use fire as a tool to help clear out the dense undergrowth, he said, or we wait for it to be done by explosive wildfires driven by the worst weather conditions.