Science Story

Fire and Forests

Diane Banegas
Research & Development
August 4th, 2016 at 1:15PM

Since the Forest Service officially established its branch of research more than 100 years ago, it has studied fire and its positive and negative roles in sustaining U.S. forests and grasslands.

“The first generation of trained foresters believed that the first measure necessary for the successful practice of forestry was protection of forests from fire,” said Diane Smith, a research historian based at the agency’s Fire Sciences Laboratory in Missoula, Mont. “This commitment to sustainable forests meant that early fire research focused on improving the prevention, detection, and suppression of all wildfires. [read more here]

Howard “Red” Halpin (left) and C.E. Hardy (right) using portable weather station
Howard “Red” Halpin (left) and C.E. Hardy (right) using portable weather station to gather fire weather data. This photo was taken during the Brackett Creek Fire in the Gallatin National Forest.

In addition, researchers and managers alike wanted Americans to understand the importance of protecting the nation’s natural resources and to learn how to work and recreate safely in the national forests.”

Smith is writing a book on the history of fire research in the Forest Service. It is slated for publication in early 2017.

In spite of the agency’s decades-long belief that the nation’s forests could only be sustained if they were protected from fire, some scientists and managers, including the first Forest Service Chief Gifford Pinchot, questioned the role fire played in sustaining forests. As Pinchot noted in 1899, research was needed to better understand the “creative action of forest fires.” In 1903, he stated the goal of this research was to have “carefully gathered facts” replace “vague general notions that now exist about forest fires.”

Regardless of Forest Service policy, some private landowners in California and the Southeast insisted that fire, or “light burning,” could help prevent bigger fires in the future. “Researchers were reluctant at first, but by the mid-20th Century, they began testing this and other ideas associated with the potential benefits of fire,” Smith said. She credits the passing of the Wilderness Act in 1964 as an additional incentive to investigate whether fire and forests could co-exist and still sustain healthy, productive forests.

Beginning in the early 1970s, Forest Service scientists began accepting fire as an essential player in managing sustainable forests.

“It’s fascinating to study the letters and other writings on this topic and see the growing realization of fire’s role in sustainable forests. That’s where the history is when you go back 50 to 100 years. That’s why it is so important for scientists and others to save these records.”