Study: Let wildfires burn, whenever possible

"It’s very clear that our current policies aren’t working," said researcher Jerry Franklin.
By Brooks Hays  |  Sept. 18, 2015 at 11:45 AM
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SEATTLE, Sept. 18 (UPI) -- Fire suppression is the norm in the United States. But researchers at the University of Washington say a more nuanced -- and sometimes hands-off -- approach is necessary.

As wildfires grow in size and number each season, firefighting resources are increasingly strained. Part of the problem, global warming, is seemingly beyond the control of firefighters and forest managers. But other parts, mismanagement of resources and ill-conceived managements strategies, require reform.

A team of forest ecologists and environmental scientists from West Coast universities say too much focus is put on suppression, while a dearth of resources are put towards fuel thinning and prescribed burns.

In new commentary, published in the journal Science, researchers call for more forest thinning near homes and more prescribed burns in remote and intermediary forests.

Currently, 98 percent of wildfires are squashed before they're able to char 300 acres. But the 2 percent that escape containment are responsible for 97 percent of firefighting expenditures and burned acreage.

"It's very clear that our current policies aren't working," paper co-author Jerry Franklin, a professor of environmental and forest sciences at Washington, said in a press release. "We need to change our policies to recognize the use of more prescribed and natural fire to deal with the conditions we're seeing in our forests today as well as to greatly accelerate restoration of more resilient conditions in accessible forests that have been dramatically altered over the past century."

Malcolm North, a scientist with the Forest Service and University of California, Davis, is lead author of the newly published commentary. The reform recommendations also includes input from scientists with the University of California, Berkeley, The Wilderness Society and Northern Arizona University.

In addition to more forest thinning near at-risk communities, researchers also recommend letting wildfires in remote, well-buffered forests burn with limited interference. A more hands-off approach will allow forests to revert to more traditional, fire-proof conditions.

Forests ripe for a less aggressive suppression strategy include the eastern slope of Washington and Oregon's Cascades, as well as much of California's Sierra Nevada wilderness.

"There's a huge area of accessible forestlands we could restore to a much more resilient condition that would be much less prone to catastrophic fires," he said.

"Management reform in the United States has failed, not because of policy, but owing to lack of coordinated pressure sufficient to overcome entrenched agency disincentives to working with fire," the authors write in their new paper.

The researchers hope their commentary will inspire reforms as national, regional and state forest management agencies begin to revise their strategies.

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