Forestry mismanagement feeds fire danger

by Rachel Lynn Aldrich
Posted 7/08/13, 03:00 pm

In the midst of a particularly deadly fire season—a blaze in Yarnell, Ariz., killed 19 firefighters last month and more than two dozen wildland fires are currently burning from Alaska to New Mexico—Americans are looking for causes in the significant uptick of the intense infernos.

Wildfires are spreading through twice as many acres per year on average in the United States than 40 years ago, U.S. Forest Service Chief Tom Tidwell told a Senate hearing last month. Since the beginning of 2000, fires have singed about 145,000 square miles, roughly the size of New York, New England, New Jersey, Delaware, and Maryland combined, according to federal records.

“Twenty years ago, I would have said [the Yarnell Hill fire] was a highly unusual, fast-moving, dangerous fire,” said fire history expert Don Falk at the University of Arizona at Tucson. “Now unfortunately, it’s not unusual at all.”

The Associated Press, along with other mainstream media, blames the fires on rising temperatures created by man-made climate change. But some are considering alternative causes. 

For instance, a furry, brown, well-intentioned bear named Smoky has encouraged the American public to put out their campfires for years: “Only you can prevent forest fires.” But the practice of putting out all small fires interrupts natural forest fire cycles, resulting in a buildup of underbrush that can cause more intense and frequent fires long-term, according to an article in The Atlantic. Research from the analysis branch of the Forest Service says the removal of surface fuel, like underbrush, is one of the most effective ways at stopping wide-spread forest fires.

Others are pinning the problem on environmental groups that pressure the government into enacting forest protection policies with disastrous unintended consequences. Following the 2011 Wallow fire in Arizona, Gary Kiehne, a fifth-generation cattle rancher and business owner in Springfield, Ariz., told Townhall, “The Wallow fire is a result of the U.S. Forest Service mismanagement.”

He pointed to policies forbidding practices like grazing and logging in national forests. Limited commercialization of forests can help to prevent forest fires by keeping underbrush down and keeping roads clear for firemen to use.

The efforts to stop all forest commercialization can actually harm the environment. Buildup of underbrush can spark intense conflagrations that not only kill the trees, but scorch the soil, causing long-term damage on the forests, which often cannot regenerate. 

As more and more people question the efficacy of forest (non)management policies, perhaps it’s time to revisit the idea that man subduing and having dominion over the earth might be better for man and environment alike. 

Associated Press contributed to this report.

Rachel Lynn Aldrich

Rachel is an assistant editor for WORLD Digital. Follow Rachel on Twitter @Rachel_Lynn_A.

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