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Wildfire Suppression Efforts Have Gotten More Aggressive, But Is There An Ecological Cost?

The 2017 Chetco Bar Fire, which started in the Kalmiopsis Wilderness in the Rogue River-Siskiyou National Forest, burned 191,000 acres and came within 5 miles of Brookings, Ore.

It’s widely understood that forests in this region need fire to maintain their ecological balance. Are current efforts to keep fires under control setting us up for problems down the road?

Smoky summers caused by large wildfires in recent years led to a strong public outcry. Now, federal land managers aggressively put out as many fires as they can before they get large.

National forest managers are responsible for managing wildfire on federal land under their control. Kris Sexton with the Klamath National Forest says she doesn’t like to take chances when it comes to safety.

“We always take aggressive action to put fires out right away and when they’re small,” she says.

These efforts have gotten even more aggressive in recent years, particularly since the notoriously smoky summers of 2017 and 2018. Merv George, who's responsible for fire management in the Rogue River- Siskiyou National Forest, says it’s important to catch fires before they get out of hand.

“If we get an ignition source out there whether it be lightning or human start, it’s going to be really hard for us to get the resources we need to get that fire out if we can’t catch it in the initial attack,” George says.

But some conservationists believe that the current focus on fire suppression may be doing more harm than good. Tim Ingalsbee is with Firefighters United for Safety Ethics and Ecology. Ingalsbee, a former firefighter himself, says that aggressive wildfire suppression is a losing battle and it may be depriving forests and wildlife of the fires they need to thrive.

“Making war on nature, we are damned if we lose for sure,” says Ingalsbee. “And we’re quite damned if we win because it will be a very different planet if we try to rob ecosystems of the fire they need to maintain their ecological integrity.”

Ingalsbee wants to move towards coexistence with fires rather than fighting them. He believes the current methods of fighting nature matches the imperialist culture of the west, with big corporations benefiting from economic drivers.

Advocates of ecological fire management believe that because most plants and animals have evolved with recurring fires, steering natural fires rather than stopping them will rejuvenate habitats and restore ecosystems.

Indigenous communities have evolved with fire, as well. Bill Tripp is with the Karuk tribe along Northern California’s Klamath River. He says before European settlement, his people managed fire to enhance food production and provide materials for traditional cultural practices.

“Those practices have been adapted in this place over thousands and thousands of years,” says Tripp. “When the fire exclusion paradigm began, our indigenous people were shot and hung and everything else for burning. Our intent is to work within our existing systems to bring those practices back.”

Standard firefighting techniques, such as using bulldozers to cut fire line, can leave long lasting scars on the landscape. Fire retardants can be toxic to waterways and wildlife. Burning also reduces insect populations and helps to fertilize the trees and make better acorns for people and wildlife to eat. The Karuk tribe has long practiced ceremonial burns to shade the river and reduce water temperatures.

Dominick DellaSalla is the chief scientist at Wild Heritage, a project of the Earth Island Institute. He says using a lighter touch would be more beneficial in the long term.

“While we need fire suppression to protect homes and lives, it’s being overdone,” says DellaSalla. “There’s almost this knee jerk reaction every time there’s a fire start which even when those wildfires are burning remotely under safe conditions and performing their necessary ecological benefits.”

But for the land managers who are responsible for keeping nearby communities safe, letting natural fires burn is just too risky.

“I don’t really think that there’s a time or a place when mother nature hands us a fire where we would be in a position to know,” says Klamath National Forest’s Kris Sexton. “Because we don’t know what next week’s weather is going to bring us, we don’t know the resources available to us fourteen days out or any of those other things.”

Merv George with the Rogue River Siskiyou National Forest believes that there’s a difference between good fires and bad fires, especially when trying to find natural balance.

“Bad fire is when you’ve got fire at the hottest time of the year where it’s really hard to control,” says George. “If that thing gets away and you don’t have the ability to put it out, the likelihood of that fire doing destruction not only to the environment but to some communities gets exponentially riskier. To me, trying to do ecological benefits with bad fire situations is definitely not worth the risk.”

Sexton believes that maintaining a healthy balance in the forest requires planning and expertise. “We really like to reach that ecological balance through prescribed fire and fire that we manage kind of on our terms rather than Mother Nature’s terms,” she says.

Prescribed burning and other forest treatments are expensive and are often complicated by variables such as weather and logistics. According to the Forest Service, there are at least 28 million acres of forest in the 15 western states that need treatment. It would be a challenge, to say the least, to gather the money and labor force necessary to replace natural fire with human intervention.