By Kyra Hall
It seems that every summer, the south-western United States goes up like a tinder box. There had been a drought in this region for some time, which has turned once lush woodland into kindling for destructive fires. States like California experience fires with alarming regularity and often substantial size. When these incidents occur, many people assume that the fires are started by careless humans and must be smothered immediately. This general view of wildfire is intrinsic in America and reflects archaic fire-management policies that actually did more harm than good.
During the 20th century, it was the policy of the United States to smother any wildfire regardless of the size or the cause. As a result, the process of burning away dead plant matter and making room for new growth was disrupted. As anyone that has tried to burn green wood knows, moist plant material is not easily lit. In a healthy forest, most of the trees will be robust enough to survive a minor fire. As a result, only dead or unfit material will be culled by a wildfire. Grasses and other such plants have root systems specifically designed to survive high temperatures. Fire is a part of the ecosystem, vital for ridding the forest of dry, dead material and releasing valuable nutrients for future generations of plants.
The policies enacted for much of the 20th century caused the dead materials to build up. Rather than quick burns being allowed to take their course, these minor fires were extinguished for fear that they would spread. Over time, the unburned material built up. Highly flammable substances like dried pine needles formed layers, feet thick in some places, on the forest floor. Soon, the practice of hyper-vigilance against fire blew up in the faces of fire officials. Even healthy trees can be lit with enough fuel, and the heaps of dry kindling provided enough fuel to take down even the most healthy trees. The losses to such fires were tremendous, and emerging environmental research proved it was time for a change.
Australia helped set a precedent for living with the threat of wildfire and the appropriate ways to control it. Bushfires are a yearly occurrence for Australians. They occur during the most arid months and can take out large swaths of vegetation. Over the course of its geological history, Australia had been a notoriously inhospitable place that encourages the survival of only the most well-adapted species. Many animals in Australia have developed methods for surviving fires. The Eucalyptus, a native Australian tree, is notorious for promoting fires. Its leaf litter is full of highly combustible oils that prevent it from being broken down and create a layer that will only be cleared by fire. The trees themselves have defense mechanisms that allow them to survive fires.
In order to prevent catastrophic fires, Australia has regulations in place that allow for periodic controlled burns. These fires are deliberately lit, and closely monitored to allow built-up material to be burned away before it can do damage as part of a larger fire. Controlled burns usually take place in the cooler months before fire threat becomes too great. Such methods of clearing litter have been discussed and experimented with in other places. America has been working on a solution to the fire problem, and controlled burning is one of many possible prevention techniques.
Once a fire has broken out, there are several ways to deal with it. Most American wildfires put people and property at risk, and their paths must therefore be controlled. Putting a fire out completely quickly becomes less practical as it grows in size. One of the best wildfire solutions involves containment. Fire-fighters can use fire blocks or use aircrafts to spread flame retardant material around the perimeter. Aircraft can also be used to dump water and chemical fire-retardants onto the blaze itself. There are new methods of prevention and suppression being developed all the time in order to reduce the losses caused by wildfires.
Every summer, the nation is reminded of the peril of uncontrolled wildfire. This year, Colorado and New Mexico are both experiencing major destructive fires. Every American should stop and take a moment to appreciate what a daunting task fire management can be. Human settlements make it impossible to simply let fires run their course, but stopping fires and letting the tinder build up can lead to even more catastrophic fires in the future. Every summer is a battle between the forces of nature and man to keep both in harmony.