How the West Was Burned: A Tale of Wildfires and Ecosystems in the American West

On May 1, 2016, a tiny spark was created near Fort McMurray, Alberta, Canada. It was like a lot of other sparks, but this one grew—and fast. Eventually it turned into a raging wildfire that forced tens of thousands of people to evacuate. It destroyed 2,400 homes and occupied parts of two Canadian provinces. What’s more—it’s still burning, more than a year later.

Here is some harrowing footage from the escape (warning: some [rightly justified] language):

So, it sounds like forest fires are pretty bad, right?

The truth is actually a little more complex than a simple yes or no…

How does fire help Western forests?

Not all ecosystems are created equal. Fire really does harm some ecosystems. But many more Western ecosystems can benefit from fire. Here is a video we made explaining the complexities of western wildland fires:

To understand the complexities of how this all works, let’s consider a baseline forest, free from any intervention from people. Trees live and die, and eventually the understory becomes full of flammable clutter—leaves, dead branches, dried-up plants, etc. The amount of buildup of this flammable material is called the fuel load in the firefighting biz. Every so often a naturally-occurring fire will pass through and clear out the fuels, leaving the larger trees alive and only slightly blackened.

This is really good for most forests, such as lodgepole pines or ponderosa pines. It clears out a clogged understory (have you ever tried walking through a forest full of knee-high, thorny wild roses?), allowing for young trees to get an edge so that they can grow big and tall. This allows the forest to naturally rejuvenate. It’s sort of like a facial scrub that removes dead skin cells to make your skin look healthy and glowing. It’s Nature’s exfoliant.

Many Western animals also benefit from forest fires. Spotted owls, for example, like to take advantage of small burned patches for hunting. They can see a long way after a cleared-out burn! Herbivores also will gobble down the flush of fresh new growth that happens after the fire, full of tasty protein and minerals.

How has fire management in the past evolved to affect us today?

Things worked well this way until one complicating variable came in: people, and lots of them. Many Native American people were responsible for setting fires—either intentionally or unintentionally—but everything began to change when the settlers arrived.

Early European settlers believed fire was the enemy. It seemed to destroy things, especially on the short time scale that the settlers watched this happen. So, why let fires burn if they were so destructive?

This line of thinking continued well into the middle of the 20th century. The U.S. government even instituted a famous 10 a.m. policy that stated all fires had to be put out by 10 a.m. of the following day after being reported. With more and more people crowding into the West, it seemed to make sense: they didn’t want big wildfires that could potentially get out of control and go on a Fort McMurray-style burn.

What this policy didn’t account for, though, was the fact that fire was natural in these environments. In fact, somewhat counterintuitively, frequent fires helped prevent large, out-of-control fires.

Normally the fuels (leaves, dead branches, etc.) would be whisked away during the frequent smaller burns. Now that those fires were being limited, those fuels had begun piling up like an endless stream of people offloading pallets for a pallet fire.

A single spark could set off a huge wildfire—so large that it would actually migrate into the crowns (tops) of the trees and kill the whole forest. What had started out as a helpful forest facial scrub had turned into a belt sander that took away everything—skin, bones, blood, and all.

How are Western forest fires managed today?

Today, many parts of the West still contain these legacy tinderboxes, just waiting for a spark to light ‘em up like a Christmas tree (pun intended).

But things changed. Fire managers realized they couldn’t go on fighting every last little flame like a never-ending, increasingly difficult game of Whack-A-Mole. So beginning in the second half of the twentieth century, they tried a new tactic: just letting some fires burn.

Over time, biologists started seeing signs of healthy forests again. There was less dead material clogging up the understory, and new trees started to grow. When fires did return a second time around, they were a lot less intense and didn’t have the potential for another conflagration.

Obviously, some fires still needed to be fought. Anything that started getting a little too close for human comfort was targeted. If the fire crossed onto another piece of land with different management styles, it had to be put out. But for the most part, this let-burn policy is now the default option for much of the West.

Why doesn’t the Eastern U.S. adopt this policy as well? I’m glad you asked…

Why is fire management different in the East and West?

Fire management styles in the East and the West are very different, and much of it comes down to two big factors—people and land.

There are way more people in the East than in the West. Don’t believe me? Check out this map of population density in North America. And a huge percentage of land in the West is under the control of a single landowner: the federal government.

Having a lot of people and a lot of landowners in the East makes things complicated. Imagine you’ve got Bob over here who wants big trees to sell to a forestry company. Next door is Jane who wants a cleared patch of land for her horses. The state government at the end of the lane has another patch of land, and they want to dam up a small creek to make a wetland preserve.

There are so many people doing so many things in such close proximity that it’s impossible to let big wildfires run loose. These small patches are much better for an Eastern fire tool—prescribed burns that still clear out the forest understory yet are able to be contained by a group of forest firefighters.

In the West it’s much easier (at least comparatively—it’s still not easy) to let big fires run wild on large swaths of federal land. Some Western wildfires can even get larger than entire states in the Eastern U.S. As long as fire managers keep an eye on the fire and contain it if it threatens humans or strays, fires are allowed to run wild in a way they can’t do in the East.

What are some other challenges in managing Western wildfires?

Even though fires are often allowed to run wild in the West, there are still a lot of challenges in managing them.

The West has a lot more challenging topography than the East. Sure, there are mountains in the Eastern U.S., but the Appalachians just can’t come close to the sheer size of the Rocky Mountains. This varied terrain makes fires move in a different way. They’ll scoot up hills, sometimes miss the downslopes entirely, and travel across the tops of ridges like a wandering hiker. Fire movement and behavior can be more challenging to predict than in the low-lying flatlands of the East.

Drought and insect outbreaks also create a one-two punch to the forest. Climate change is causing droughts that kill many trees, just like your crunchy, dried-out geranium you forgot to water two months ago. A longer season means more time for insects to get busy—both by feasting on trees and with each other, making even more insects. These standing dead trees create a hazard, hearkening back to the old tinderbox days when fuels piled up with explosive potential.

These factors are causing even more wildfires to happen. A recent study demonstrated that climate change has doubled the amount of Western forest fires since 1984.

What about far-Northwestern fires?

Wildfires are adapted to many places in the West, but there are a few places they shouldn’t be happening very frequently—for example, parts of the Arctic tundra.

You’d think that the Arctic tundra would be a difficult place to burn. There are few, if any trees, after all. But, the tundra is literally composed of dead material that has been stacking up—and decaying very slowly, if at all—for millennia, in some cases. It’s sort of like a giant peat bog. (Speaking of which, fun fact: northern European people used to burn peat as fuel for their homes in place of wood.)

Recently, fires have begun to pop up in the Arctic tundra where they haven’t been before, and scientists are only projecting this to increase as the climate heats up more. While this may not immediately affect a whole lot of people when it happens, it has a global consequence.

The tundra serves as a huge carbon reservoir. So large, in fact, that the tundra is estimated to contain half of all the world’s belowground carbon. As long as we have that carbon locked up in the tundra, climate change should proceed at a normal (albeit too-high) pace. But when a tundra fire happens, a ton of carbon is released—literally.

For example, the 2007 Anaktuvuk River fire in northern Alaska released an estimated “2.1 teragrams of C to the atmosphere, an amount similar in magnitude to the annual net C sink for the entire Arctic tundra biome averaged over the last quarter of the twentieth century.” (emphasis added)

We’ll only be able to tell with time (or fancy math projections) what effect this will have on future climate warming.

So…are Western wildfires bad?

In themselves, no. Fires are a necessary part of many Western ecosystems. The problem comes in when people and fires collide, or when fires pop up in places they shouldn’t be.

We can coexist with Western wildfires (for the most part). This is where you come in.

We need more research done on how to improve our current fire management systems and how to better handle new problems that are sure to crop up in the future. We need people to vote for strong political leaders who will support more ecological research and devote more funding to managing wildfires.

More importantly for the short term, we need people to better understand how to deal with wilderness in the West now. We need to teach people how to handle campfires and other flames properly so they don’t set off another Fort McMurray. We need to teach private landowners how to manage their own land so they don’t unwittingly create their own micro-tinderboxes.

We also need to teach people to tolerate wildfires better. Many people still have the “all fires are bad” mentality, or they don’t tolerate some of the wide-ranging effects of forest fires, like smoke or ashes. These people might have good intentions, but they may be placing people in greater danger by pushing for wildfire suppression in cases where it can be beneficial. A few smoky days from a carefully monitored smaller wildfire might just be the price you pay to keep your home safe from a devastating wildfire gone rogue.

If we do these things right, and do them consistently, we’ll all be able to coexist peacefully with Western forests.

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Written by Lindsay VanSomeren

Lindsay graduated with a master’s degree in wildlife biology and conservation from the University of Alaska Fairbanks. She also spent her time in Alaska racing sled dogs, and studying caribou and how well they are able to digest nutrients from their foods. Now, she enjoys sampling fine craft beers in Fort Collins, Colorado, knitting, and helping to inspire people to learn more about wildlife, nature, and science in general.

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