Wildfires attracted comparatively little attention for centuries. Although such blazes destroyed plants, they typically were of small size and had little negative impact on humans. As people have moved closer to wildlands and as the climate has warmed, controlled burns have become more difficult to stage, while uncontrolled burns threaten more homes and people.
Wildfire control does not entail stopping all fires. Some blazes bring benefits to the natural environment by creating vegetative diversity, such as a mixture of wildlife habitats, while destroying the brush that threatens to become a heavy fuel accumulation. Periodic small fires prevent large, massively destructive fires. Wildfires are a natural part of the ecosystem.
Historical Background and Scientific Foundations
Wildfires typically occur when weather conditions increase the risk of fire activity. Unusually wet weather produces abundant vegetation that sets up a region for catastrophic wildfire. Low humidity and dry, windy conditions then provide the conditions for fire potential. Fires propelled by strong winds can move as fast as 60 mi(96 km) per hour. In 2008, Indian scientists reportedthat biomass density and average precipitation of thewarmest quarter of forest had the highest connection tothe incidence of forest fires. Other factors included theamount of forest area, rural population density, elevation, and mean annual temperature. Downed powerlines, lightning strikes, carelessly tossed cigarettes, sparksfrom welding equipment, and arson are major causes ofwildfires.
Wildfires have been deliberately set in the past to benefit humans. English colonists in the southern colonies of America in the seventeenth century were interested in the Native American practice of burning extensive sections of the forest once or twice a year. The burning consumed all the underwood and brush that would make passage through the forest difficult and complicate hunting. The result was a forest of large, widely spaced trees, few shrubs, and much grass and herbage. Additionally, the removal of brush and fallen trees reduced the total accumulated fuel at ground level. With only small non-woody plants to consume, the annual fires moved quickly, burned with relatively low temperatures, and soon extinguished themselves. These fires rarely grew out of control. Fires of this kind could be used to drive game for hunting, to clear fields for planting, and, on at least one occasion, to fend off European invaders. On the plains, Indians often ignited fires every spring to encourage the new grass growth that would benefit horses and buffalo. In October 1804, explorers Meriwether Lewis and William Clark observed a deliberately set prairie fire that went out of control, killing two people and injuring three more.
Modern governments have used controlled burns to manage natural resources. Firebreaks, sometimes combined with controlled burning, top the list of wildfire control measures. The Natural Resources Conservation Service recommends that firebreaks of 10-foot (3-meter) wide strips of bare soil be set up around structures and fields adjacent to roadways. In large areas, where structures are vulnerable, or where large tracts of land may be affected, a combination of firebreaks and fireguards are used. Firebreaks are constructed during cooler weather with high humidity. The land between firebreaks is then burned to create a black area with no vegetation to support a fire as a fireguard. Some rangeland requires even more protection. Since juniper trees can send bits of burning tree as far as 200 ft (60 m) or more downwind, areas with heavy concentrations of junipers often have 500-foot (152-meter) firebreaks. Such measures reflect changes in federal policy. In July 1972, fire suppression activities used at the Moccasin Mesa blaze in New Mexico destroyed many archeological sites. The resulting public furor led to a national policy to include cultural resource oversight in wildland fires on federal lands.
Although the most prominent fires of the nineteenth and twentieth centuries occurred in the Midwest and West, climate change has brought devastating fires to the East. The August 1995 Sunrise fire in Long Island, New York, that destroyed 5,000 acres alerted Easterners to the fact that a major blaze could happen in their region. Fires in Florida in 1998 forced the evacuation of thousands of people while damaging over 200,000 acres.
Impacts and Issues
As a general rule, U.S. agencies assume responsibility for managing and financing fires that break out on federal lands, while states take charge of blazes on state trust lands or private property. As a result, some states have shouldered massive expenses. On many fires, state and local government crews are often the first to respond, provide most of the fire engines, and carry out most of the fire line work, at least until escaping flames ignite a
WORDS TO KNOW
CONTROLLED BURN: A forest management technique in which small, controlled fires are set to clear brush and prevent larger wildfires in the future.
FIREBREAK: A strip of cleared or plowed land that acts as a barrier to slow or stop the progress of a wildfire.
WILDLAND FIRE USE: A fire management technique that uses naturally ignited fires to benefit natural resources.
fast-spreading conflagration. For those events, the U.S. Forest Service and Department of the Interior work closely with state natural resource agencies and rural fire departments through cooperative agreements, combining fire engines, aircraft, and firefighting crews to fight major fires regardless of where they are burning.
The debate within the United States about global warming has harmed efforts to control wildfires. The development of mega-fires, like Colorado’s Hayman Fire in 2002 that burned 136,000 acres and 600 structures, means that firefighting agencies need to develop strate-
gies that go beyond fighting fires and fuel management to include variables like the effects of climate change. Since 1999, the U.S. Government Accountability Office (GAO) has recommended the development of a cohesive fire strategy that addresses long-term options and associated funding for reducing hazardous fuels and combating fires. In 2007, a GAO report stated that resource managers in the Agriculture, Interior, and Commerce departments have received limited guidance about whether or how to address climate change. This lack of guidance reduces the ability of these agencies to effectively manage natural resources.
Another GAO report in 2007 found that agencies have identified weaknesses in the management of fire cost-containment efforts but have yet to clearly define cost-containment goals and objectives. In 2007, the U.S. Forest Service spent $1.4 billion fighting fires. The government has been criticized for using too high a percentage of its funds on fire suppression instead of preventive measures such as fuels reduction. State and local governments generally use federal assistance dollars to help fund fuel reduction and the training of state firefighters. These state and local programs face cutbacks in light of federal budget woes and the inability of cash-strapped state and local government to pick up the federal slack. As the risk of fires increases because of climate change, the resources to control wildfires are diminishing.
Krauss, Erich. Wall of Flame: The Heroic Battle to Save Southern California. Indianapolis: Wiley, 2006.
Patent, Dorothy Hinshaw. Fire: Friend or Foe? New York: Clarion Books, 1998.
Schwab, James. Planning for Wildfires. Chicago: American Planning Association, 2005.
National Interagency Fire Center.http://www.nifc.gov (accessed March 14, 2008).
U.S. Forest Service. “Fire and Aviation Management.” http://www.fs.fed.us/fire/ (accessed March 14, 2008).
Caryn E. Neumann