People don’t like to see forests burn, but sometimes a wildfire burning across the landscape is exactly what the forest needs. Many plants and animals have evolved with, and adapted to, periodic fires. In fact, some forests actually need fire to be healthy.
As an example, consider the series of fires that famously burned huge portions of forested land in and around Yellowstone National Park in 1988. The very next year, lush grasses and small trees sprouted out of the ashes. The lodgepole pines needed fire to open their pine cones and release new seeds. Tourists to the area today see a healthy, vigorous, young forest. However, the new forest may take 80 to 150 years to reach the height of the pre-fire forest.
The buildup of trees and underbrush in our forested lands is one of the main reasons why wildfires burn longer and are more destructive. These findings are backed by numerous studies such as Wildfire, Wildlands, and People and Quadrennial Fire Review. Many people believe that if we had allowed more burning of forests in and around Yellowstone in prior decades, the 1988 fires would not have been so large or so intense.
So how did we get to the point where forest growth and underbrush is such a problem? A lot is a result of unintended consequences. Through most of the 20th century, wildfire prevention policy was exactly that: prevention. Americans put out fires where and whenever they started and we didn’t start any controlled burns. After decades of forest growth, the buildup has created a highly combustible environment where fires can be destructive and unstoppable.
The Forest Service, as part of its Accelerated Restoration program, treated more than 2.6 million acres for hazardous fuels in 2012 through mechanical treatments and prescribed burns. However, some would argue that the agency is not doing the right thing when it comes to fire management, while others would argue that not nearly enough work is being done.
Forest restoration involves restoring health and resiliency to forest ecosystems. In fire-adapted ecosystems, this can include reducing density of trees and underbrush, creating a mosaic of different size and aged patches of forests, and reintroduction of fire. A healthy resilient forest can serve as a defense against unwanted effects of wildfire, especially in an era of longer wildfire seasons.
Through research, experiments and practice, the Forest Service is working to better understand the natural underlying processes of wildland fire—to work with those natural processes and not against them. Only time will tell if the agency has been successful in readdressing age old fire management practices.
Simply put, the Forest Service believes that forest restoration can also be wildfire preparedness.