By Christopher Martin, Connecticut State Forester and Chair of the Forest Science & Health Committee
In 2014, wildfires consumed 3,595,613 US acres at a taxpayer cost of $1,522,149,000.
Heat, fuel and oxygen make up the basic recipe to a fire start. Combine record breaking heat and historic drought with millions of acres of beetle-killed standing trees and you have a recipe for conflagration. Remove or reduce one of these ingredients and you greatly decrease the risk of uncontrolled wildfire.
Forest management designed to mimic naturally occurring events mitigates the risk of wildfire in a timely and controlled fashion by reducing one of the key wildfire ingredients, fuel. It is much harder to ignite a green, vibrant forest than an overcrowded brown, dead, or dying one.
Today tens of thousands of homes are threatened by wildfire in what is called the wildland-urban interface (WUI). As I write, hundreds of residents are leaving their homes and personal belongings behind . What are they doing? Fleeing the ravages of widlfires enhanced by overcrowded dead and dying trees.
Just last week, an interstate highway bridge washed out in California as a result of five inches of rain falling on a previously burned watershed. There were no trees or understory vegetation to dissipate the runoff energy, which increased the mass wasting of soil eroding directly into waterways.
No doubt there are benefits from naturally occurring wildfire for wildlife and rejuvenating a young forest. Unfortunately many of our forests no longer experience naturally occurring conditions. Forests are always changing, but today they are changing in more extreme ways outside what we refer to as the historic range of variability. We need more active forest management – including thinning, regeneration harvests, and prescribed burning – to begin restoring essential ecosystem functions.
Simply allowing nature to take its course in forests with unprecedented fuel loads when those forests are experiencing extreme weather conditions is a form of neglect, which in some cases can turn into a threat to public safety when an unplanned fire is sparked.
We can and should do more to manage forests – with science based forest management – to improve forest health and to reduce the threat of wildfire. It’s always wildfire season somewhere in the United States, and the cost of fire suppression affects every American regardless of where you live. Even if flames aren’t threatening your family right now, the cost of fighting fire elsewhere can actually eliminate critical funds needed for conservation programs in your state.