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Wildfires

WILDFIRES

WILDFIRES have always shaped the landscape. Many are not caused by humans, but by lightning, which is a major cause of wildfires, particularly in the West. In the twentieth century, governments at all levels tried to suppress wildfires. In the second half of the century, the environmental movement introduced the notion that wildfires were ecologically beneficial, and in 1972 the National Park Service adopted, experimentally, a policy of letting some wildfires burn; in 1976 the policy was adopted generally and became known as the "let-burn" policy. In 1978 the U.S. Forest Service adopted the same policy. Most such fires, designated "prescribed fires," burned less than 100 acres. In years of drought, however, there were major problems. In 1977, 175,000 acres of California wilderness burned in the Marble Cone fire. In 1979 wildfires in California, Oregon, Idaho, Montana, and Wyoming burned more than 600,000 acres. In 1981 a swamp fire in Florida consumed 300,000 acres. Three years later 250,000 acres of Montana forest and range burned, and in 1987, 200,000–300,000 acres in Oregon burned.

The worst wildfire season since World War II came in 1988; more than 6 million acres burned, 2.2 million of them in Alaska. Fires around Yellowstone National Park were shown on television and had a major public effect. As drought in the West persisted, wildfires continued to pose major risks. Yosemite National Park closed temporarily in 1990 because of a nearby wildfire. In 1991 a wildfire raced through a residential section of Oakland, Calif., killing at least twenty-four people. In 1993 a spectacular wildfire in the brushland north and south of Los Angeles burned the houses of many celebrities and caused nearly $1 billion in damage. In 1994 more than fourteen fire-fighters were killed fighting wildfires in Colorado and elsewhere in the West; acreage burned again exceeded one million acres. The extension of suburban development into wilderness areas in the 1990s made the fire risk to property and human life even more acute, ensuring that debates over fire management would continue to preoccupy both homeowners and policy leaders into the next century.

BIBLIOGRAPHY

Pyne, Stephen J. Fire in America: A Cultural History of Wildland and Rural Fire. Princeton, N.J.: Princeton University Press, 1982.

Nancy M.Gordon/l. t.; a. r.

See alsoConservation ; Disasters ; Fire Fighting ; Forest Service, United States ; Interior, Department of the ; Western Lands .

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wildfire

wild·fire / ˈwīldˌfīr/ • n. 1. a large, destructive forest- or brush-fire that spreads quickly. 2. hist. a combustible liquid such as Greek fire that was readily ignited and difficult to extinguish, used esp. in warfare. 3. less common term for will-o'-the-wisp. PHRASES: spread like wildfire spread with great speed: the news had spread like wildfire.

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wildfire

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