Not all fires need to be put out
Wildfires have been with us for long before we were smart enough to figure out what to do with fire. And wildfires will be here long after we become smart enough to figure out how to best coexist with them.Here in the West we have attempted for the past 100 years to put fires out as soon as they start. The theory was that the only good wildfire was a dead one.We have all been educated by that cute but not-so-little half-dressed bear by the name of Smokey that “only you can prevent forest fires.”Now government land management agencies are trying to re-educate themselves and the public that not all fires need to be put out. The fact is that because we have suppressed every fire, our forests are in trouble.By trying to outsmart Mother Nature we have created unnatural conditions in western forests. Dense vegetation, especially dead and down timber, can produce much larger devastating fires than would normally have occurred.This is especially true in what are called fire-prone or fire-tolerant forests such as those dominated by ponderosa pine. “P” pine, as those of us in the business of managing forests call it, has a fire history of regularly burning every 6 to 25 years.These periodic fires kept the forest floor free of accumulated debris and burned small shrubs and trees, or ladder fuels, to carry the fire to the upper canopy and cause dangerous crown fires.So, allowing fire to resume its natural role in the ecosystem, especially in a landscape of ponderosa pine, would seem like a good idea. However, most people who have decided to build their home in a forest of ponderosa would probably not be so inclined to agree.Smoke is the main reason for the controversy created by managing fire for its benefits and not totally suppressing it.Nobody likes living in smoke, not knowing when it will go away. My family is no exception, having been evacuated twice from our home because of wildfires.Where there’s smoke there’s fire, and fire from time immemorial for us humans has caused a primal dread because of its potential danger.People may agree in theory with the idea behind letting wildfires return to the forest, but not when those fires are in their neighborhood. Not when their lungs are sucking in smoke on a daily basis.My job today is to take the calls on the information hotline from citizens who are not real happy with the Wildland Fire Use Team I came to help.As I sit here at the temporary command post at the local high school in a typical Colorado small-town resort community, I can see the smoke people want to go away.The fire started out as a lightning strike to a single tree almost two weeks ago. This morning it is over 1,000 acres and still growing in the direction we had hoped it would.Sometimes helping Mother Nature is a complicated business. Writing from over 25 years of firefighting experience, Bill Kight, of Glenwood Springs, shares what it’s like to be on a Fire Use Team in his column, which appears every other week.
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