To the editor:
Why so many damaging, catastrophic wildfires?
The long answer is that Canadians and Americans, over the last decades, were fearful of forest fires. Every fire was bad and to be vigorously extinguished. Forest fires became more menacing as people resided ever closer to heavily forested lands, especially in the west. Smokey the Bear was a hero, as well as a huge media success. Politicians fighting fires became heroes too and firefighting budgets increased accordingly.
Hindsight tells us that we missed something. We missed the fact that fires are an essential part of the forest environment. Fires help create a varied patchwork of tree species and age classes. This makes forests more resilient to insects, diseases, and catastrophic wildfires.
Case in point is the lodgepole pine. It needs fire to mature seed cones and create new seedlings. These pines don’t live long and by 80 years they are old-timers subject to insects and disease. Aggressive firefighting let vast contiguous areas of them to get really old. A few warm winters resulted in high insect progeny survival and the mountain pine beetle population exploded, fed by all those old-timers. Trees died and dried before they could be harvested.
All it took was a natural or human-caused ignition source because, in the west, the last decade has been exceptionally warm and dry.
The cultural and political conditions that created this problem stem back generations. There are no quick fixes. To start, we need to better understand our forest environment and how to live with it, not to conquer it. Then we need to apply the latest in forest management science to better manage this complex environment. Planned, prescribed burns can help restore and rejuvenate our forests. Let’s have Smokey the Bear hibernate for a while.