Over the past few weeks, Northern California has been devastated by numerous forest fires, some of which are still burning prolifically. In Lake County, two of these fires have merged and collectively torched almost 100,000 acres, and are still only partially contained. The largest of these fires began in late July, and is just now getting snuffed out.
Those of you living east of the Rockies probably don’t think much of this. Western states like California are routinely consumed by wildfires every summer. What makes any of this so special or surprising?
The truth is, these fires have been growing in number and severity every year. The situation has become so serious, that National Geographic has taken notice of the phenomenon, and the devastating effect that it’s having on the environment.
TWISP, Washington—The largest fire in state history swept through the eastern slopes of the Cascade Range with explosive force last summer. The Carlton Complex Fire burned more than 250,000 acres, devouring everything in its path at the hypersonic pace of 3.8 acres per second.
Until then, the top slot in the state’s fire rankings belonged to the Tripod Fire, which burned up 175,000 beetle-infested acres in two months on the same slopes in 2006.
Carlton and Tripod are “megafires,” part of a wave of extreme fires that are transforming the great forests of the American West. By the end of the century, scientists say, megafires—conflagrations that chew up at least 100,000 acres of land—will become the norm. Which makes them of critical interest to researchers.
These infernos, once rare, are growing to sizes that U.S. Forest Service Chief Tom Tidwell describes as “unimaginable” two decades ago. Five alone have consumed more than five million acres in central Alaska since June. Washington, Oregon, California, Arizona, New Mexico and Colorado also experienced their worst wildfires in the past seven years.
So what gives? Why on Earth are these “megafires” chewing up the landscape of North America all of a sudden, when they were practically unheard of a generation ago? The most obvious culprit that one might consider, are the current drought conditions in the West. However, while the lack of water certainly isn’t helping, this trend predates the droughts.
The other leading theory happens to be global warming, which is what the National Geographic article mainly focused on. However, I don’t think climate could fully explain this situation. The biggest culprit (in my humble opinion at least) is something that most people probably haven’t considered, which is our government’s century spanning policy on preventing forest fires. As strange as it might sound, this probably paved the way for the megafires we have now.
It all began in the late 1800’s as newly arrived settlers let their livestock munch away at the grasslands. This alone was enough to keep fires from spreading, but then the United States Forest Service was founded, and they began enforcing strict rules to prevent fires. The creation of our national parks also exacerbated the problem, since there’s really no point in having a park if you’re just going to let it burn, right?
University of Arizona Professor Thomas Swetnam has gone so far as to call this, the Smokey Bear effect, after the adorable fire fighting cartoon mascot that I’m sure you’re all familiar with. Basically, by trying to prevent fires, we created the perfect conditions for the fires to spread. Fire is an important part of the natural life cycle of the forest. They burn away the old and usher in the new, and there are plenty of plant species that require a routine burning to reproduce.
By stopping these fires for more than a hundred years, thick layers of undergrowth and a high density of trees and shrubs have developed in regions where this never existed before. We’ve essentially turned our wildlands into powder kegs. Where once we had numerous small fires of little consequence, now a mere spark can burn tens of thousands of acres in a day.
And not only do we have fires that are larger and in greater number, but they also do more damage. A pre-20th century blaze would have only temporarily stunted the growth of trees, but now they completely wipe out whole habitats and put some animals on the endangered species list. That’s not to mention the threat this poses to human life and property of course.
Unfortunately, this is something that we’ll just have to get used to. Some of our land management agencies already spend half of their budget on fighting fires, and they don’t really have the money to do controlled burns. And even if they did, many of our forests have gone so long without burning, that it may be impossible to do a controlled burn without it growing out of control. The only thing we can do is let these megafires consume decades of short-sighted fire prevention strategies, and try to do a better job of managing our forests next time around.