Updated Jun 8, 2023, 7:46am EDT
North America

Wildfires: Forests need more fire, not less


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The Agenda

Many western forests need frequent, low-severity wildfires to thrive. But in the 20th century, the US government vowed to put out all forest fires and outlawed traditional burning by indigenous peoples. Most experts think that this policy contributed to denser forests … and the massive, deadly wildfires that now race through them.

“These are not your grandfather’s fires,” Senator Ron Wyden told me. “They’re bigger, they’re hotter, they’re more powerful. Communities wiped down to ashes — that’s what we’re dealing with.”

With temperatures rising and the western drought deepening, wildfires will be part of life for the foreseeable future. But there is wide consensus that we can dampen the impacts of those megafires by carefully reintroducing smaller fires to the landscape. That could mean letting some natural fires run their course. Or that could mean agencies and tribal groups setting more prescribed fires. This will require a massive increase in labor – there are many more burn projects needed than there are trained workers. And it will require policymakers to understand that the risk of prescribed fires is much smaller than the risk of doing nothing.

Watch above for our latest episode of our series The Agenda, about the policy problems at the top of Washington’s to-do list and the people trying to solve them, and subscribe to Semafor on YouTube for all our videos.

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What's Next

The Inflation Reduction Act allocated $1.8 billion for “hazardous fuels reduction” in America’s forests. Those dollars are already funding some prescribed burns … and also “thinning” projects. In the latter, crews cut down small and medium trees to try and rob fires of their fuel. It’s a painstaking process — and the value of the harvested trees doesn’t come close to covering the expense. But there’s a bigger issue: a growing body of evidence suggests that thinning can often make wildfires worse unless it’s followed by a burn. Time will tell how much the Forest Service is actually investing in prescribed fire vs. thinning — and  what impact these fuels reduction projects will have on the future fire seasons.

Meanwhile, Wyden and his colleagues from Colorado, John Hickenlooper and Michael Bennet have introduced a bill that would send $60 billion to forest “restoration and resilience projects” including “reintroduction of characteristic, low-intensity fire in frequent fire regime ecosystems.”

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  • Data-visualizations from the New York Times show what makes the issue of wildfires so urgent: more and more people are living in the path of destruction.
  • Oregon Public Broadcasting has led the coverage of wildfires in the pacific northwest, including this piece by Tony Schick and Jes Burns on timber industry efforts to push logging as a wildfire mitigation strategy.
  • Susan Prichard, the University of Washington fire ecologist featured in this video, lays out the mainstream scientific consensus on wildfire management in this review paper. She and her co-authors write, “an intentional merging of Indigenous and western knowledge is needed to guide future forest conditions and restore active fire regimes to western North American forests.”
  • Ecologist Dominick DellaSala (also featured) argues that most fuels reduction projects are ineffectual or counterproductive. He’s part of a vocal faction of conservationists often at odds with the Forest Service and mainstream scientists.
  • Environmental scientist Melinda Adams examines “the powerful Indigenous healing that is nourished by the constructive action of cultural burning” in this recent paper.
  • Elemental: Reimagine Wildfire” — a documentary film by Trip Jennings – explores our changing understanding of fire and shows how different people are learning to live alongside fire-adapted forests.