The increasing frequency and intensity of wildfires – not just in the American West but throughout the country – is becoming a fact of life, and it’s time we learned to live with it. Partly it’s a function of climate change, and partly it’s a result of the way U.S. officials managed fires in this country for nearly a century.
That’s the assessment of Michael Kodas, author of “Megafire: The Race to Extinguish a Deadly Epidemic of Flame,” who argues that accepting fire as a part of the cycle is rapidly becoming a necessity.
“If we’re always thinking about fighting wildfires, then we’re not investing enough in learning how to live with them,” Kodas tells USA TODAY. “And we’re going to have to live with wildfires. It’s not what we thought a century ago; that fire in our forests was kind of like this unwanted beast we could eradicate if we just worked hard enough to hunt it down.”
The National Park Service has historically been an innovator in fire management – diverging from the U.S. Forest Service, which has a zero-tolerance forest fire policy – and parks have been a laboratory for those practices.
The landmark National Park Service wildfire was the 1988 Yellowstone fire. “At the time it was seen as a horrible misjudgment on the part of the park service, and senators in Wyoming and Montana and Idaho were just calling for the head of the director of Yellowstone National Park and even gunning at the director of the park service for letting these fires burn.”
Most of them were natural wildfires and the park service’s philosophy has always been that when it’s safe, to let a fire burn. This clears old built-up fuel and makes way for new life, especially species that are fire-dependent – like the sequoia, for example, which generates cones sealed with a resin that only opens with extreme heat.
But the Yellowstone fire grew far beyond the expected scale; about a third of park burned. “The story back then was that this was a terrible mistake, and that the park was destroyed,” said Kodas. “And then, not too many years after the fires burned through, we started to recognize that that wasn’t really the case. The general consensus was that Yellowstone was probably healthier 10 years after those fires burned than it was 10 years before those fires burned.”
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