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Learning To Live With Forest Fire: More Management, Says Science Panel

Don Ryan
Fire engulfs a juniper tree near Roosevelt, Wash., Wednesday, Aug. 5, 2015.

The devastating wildfires in eastern Washington and California this year are pointing to the need for new policies. More focus on managing fire and less on suppression is what is needed, according to a panel of scientists, including one from the University of Washington.

Ironically, fighting fire is a big part of what has caused the dramatic increase in wildfire size and severity, the panel says. More than a hundred years of fire suppression has transformed many forests into tinderboxes ready to explode. In the past, frequent low-level or moderate burns would take out smaller trees, encourage the growth of more fire resistant species and reduce the fire risk, says UW Forestry Professor, Jerry Franklin.

“You know a lot of what we are experiencing now in the inter-mountain West – and that includes eastern Washington and eastern Oregon and many parts of California – is the consequences of a hundred years plus of fire suppression,” he said.

Writing with six other authors in the journal Science, Franklin says current policies are not working. The panel argues, rather than fighting all wildfires, letting them burn in some places to reduce built up fuels is a necessity.

They advocate for proactive use of managed fires to reduce risk in certain areas, coupled with educational efforts such as have proven successful in Australia to ease public concern. And they say prescribed burns in remote forests could be timed when the weather and wind directions are favorable, for example. In places closer to where people live, fires could still be suppressed and mechanical thinning used to get the landscape back to a more natural, fire-resistant state.

Franklin says millions of acres of forests that were historically well-adapted to fire have become fuel-laden and dense with highly flammable trees.  Franklin says many of those trees now need to be taken out.

“To adjust the composition of the forest and shift it back to a dominance by Ponderosa Pine, for example, and eliminate the extremely fire-prone True Firs and Douglas Fir,” he said.

Revenue from harvested timber could even be used to offset some management costs, he added.

“If we had a fraction of the resources that we’re putting into fire suppression to do restoration, we could make massive advancement on that in a matter of a decade," Franklin argues. 

The paper cites current proposals before Congress as openings for policy change, including the recently introduced Wildland Fire Management Act of 2015 co-authored by Washington Senator Maria Cantwell. The panel also suggests that ongoing revisions to the US Forest Service’s national forest plans are an opportunity to zone areas for different kinds of more proactive fire management. 

Bellamy Pailthorp covers the environment for KNKX with an emphasis on climate justice, human health and food sovereignty. She enjoys reporting about how we will power our future while maintaining healthy cultures and livable cities. Story tips can be sent to