It’s been a rough time for the western United States, recently. After years of droughts, and decades of fire suppression, the forests of the west are in such a state as to allow near constant burning, of a horrifying degree, to occur. The president has said that the state of California is to blame for the fires, as they result from the mismanagement of their forests, but the reality is much more nuanced, and far-reaching. The reality is that Americans have been mismanaging these forests since they first colonized this land in the 17th century, and we didn’t start improving our practices until very recently. Native Americans were much more active in promoting the processes that helped keep the land healthy, practices like prescribed burning and permaculture that worked to maintain balance in the land on which they were residing. Their understanding of the importance of maintaining the land was lost on the European settlers, who viewed all natural resources, including the forests, as infinite and inexhaustible. They clear-cut for miles, using the wood for land, warmth, and, perhaps most notably, as a material to build millions of miles of fence. The domestication of animals wasn’t a widespread feature in the Americas until the settlers came, and domesticating animals required enclosures for said animals. Early fences were rather inefficient, and required 8,000 hand split rails for a 40 acre enclosure. Assuming it took 400 trees to make those 8,000 rails, and that for a settlement of 100 people there would be 4,000 acres of fenced in land, we’re looking at 40,000 trees just for a small settlement, just for fences! It’s no wonder our forests have been struggling for so long: they’ve been on the defensive, just trying to recover, since we first colonized this land.
I’ve already written on this blog about the horror that is Smokey Bear’s early 20th century anti-burn rhetoric, but it’s worth revisiting. Suffice it to say, suppressing all forms of fire was a gross mistake by the American government, and is undoubtedly a huge part of the problems we’re having today. But it’s important to remember that settlers initially used fire intentionally to help convert previously cut areas into farmland. Unfortunately they were negligent in their use of fire, and since they had clear-cut so much land and left behind so much refuse, the fires they started burned ferociously, and out-of-control. It’s estimated that in the years between 1870 and 1920, thousands of people died in the forest fires that were burning 20-50 million acres a year. There was a large problem with how we were handling our forests, and it was finally becoming apparent. Scores of people began to take note, and the influential people of the late 1800s and early 1900s began to put their energy into protecting our nation’s natural bounty. Teddy Roosevelt was a fierce defender of America’s natural resources, and when he became president, appointed the United State’s first chief forester. They called out the idea that our forests were infinite, and worked to create a movement to repopulate and protect our nation’s forests. It was a revolution! Unfortunately, some revolutions are imperfect in their scope, and so too was the American forestry revolution imperfect. The first mission of those trying to protect our forests was to stop what was seen as the most pressing and volatile concern: forest fires.
Fire suppression continued for far too long: it was decades until we finally begun to understand that removing fire from our forests was harmful, and that fire is a necessary element of many of the ecosystems we were working to eliminate fire from. Those decades of fire suppression not only made the forests less healthy, it also allowed for fuels to collect, which meant that the fires that occurred were much more ferocious. If you consider this, alongside the massive climate warming that’s taking place, the increase in fires makes perfect sense. It’s warmer across the globe by about 1.62 degrees Fahrenheit, which means relative humidity is lower almost across the board, which means that plants are losing more moisture, which means that the fuels that have spent decades collecting are dryer and more combustible. Mix this with the other factors that occur alongside climate change, like more intense winds, longer summers, and drought, and it’s a recipe for disaster. Drought specifically was a huge factor in the wildfires happening now. Between 2011 and 2017, California experienced one of the most widespread and intense droughts in it’s history, with the period from 2011 to 2014 being the driest ever to be recorded. This drought not only removed moisture from the ground, but it also ended up killing over 102 million trees, leaving plenty of kindling for any stray sparks to ignite. Drier land and a surfeit of dead fuels were huge factors in the rise of wildfires in California, and it’s safe to say that those conditions set the stage for the problems we’re seeing today.
Fire has always been a part of these ecosystems, but it should have been put down in deliberate, predictable ways. California has a robust history with fire, but woefully our desire to eliminate the danger of fire only led us to increase it. Fire should have been a regularly utilized forestry practice since we first settled the west, and it could have been an extremely beneficial tool. It’s an undeniable part of life out west, but our ignorance led us to try to sweep it under the rug. California, Oregon, and Nevada are all doing a much better job of using prescribed fire to prevent wildfires, but there’s still so much work to be done. We’re seeing some truly terrifying fires right now, including the Camp fire, which has claimed 44 lives and is now on record as the most dangerous fire in California’s history. It’s wiped towns off the map, caused widespread property and structural damage, and has caused thousands of lives to be forever changed. We have a duty to learn from our history, to look back with a critical eye and change our behavior based on what has and hasn’t worked. Suppressing fire has not worked. Treating our forests as infallible resources has not worked. It’s time to step up and take action, let the research dictate our path, and work our tails off to protect our planet, our forests, and ourselves.