5 big myths about wildfire

Firefighters work to suppress the "Rim Fire" in California in 2013. 

Credit: Mike McMillan (USFS) via Stuart Rankin, flickr.

Wildfires are a growing threat—and if we want to effectively combat them, we need to learn the truth behind the persistent myths that surround them.

Wildfires are growing larger and more destructive than ever before due to climate change, drought, a lack of funding for prevention programs and other factors. 

This makes wildfire an especially pressing issue. Unfortunately, it is frequently misunderstood. Especially with more and more people moving and building homes closer to wildlands, it is vital that we separate wildfire myths and facts.

1. Myth: All wildfires are bad and should be stopped immediately

Reality: Protection of life and property is always the top priority during any wildfire. However, fire has played an important ecological role in forests for thousands of years. Some species of plants depend on periodic wildfires as part of the natural cycle of recovery, and many other species easily tolerate naturally occurring, periodic fires. 

The Coconino National Forest (Arizona) in the aftermath of a fire. Fire can actually play an important role in a forest's natural equilibrium, allowing new life to spring forth. Credit: Brady Smith (USFS), flickr.

Within wilderness areas, the Forest Service aims to permit lightning-caused fires to play a natural ecological role, while at the same time preventing fires from “escaping” and causing damage to nearby communities. Wildfire in wilderness areas can create wildlife habitat, renew soil nutrients and limit the size of subsequent fires by clearing old trees that would otherwise act as “fuel.” Managing wilderness fires with these benefits in mind lowers risk for firefighters and reduces costs relative to fire suppression.

The Wilderness Act provides broad and flexible guidance for managing fire in wilderness areas. This primer provides background on wildfire management law and policy within wilderness areas, and includes a specific focus on Forest Service law and regulation.  

Read more: Fire in wilderness

2. Myth: All wildfires are natural and should be allowed to burn freely

Reality: Again, the truth is more complicated. Because of drier and hotter weather, encroaching development and a long history of unwisely preventing fires from burning in our forests (see Myth #1), many wildfires now present a greater danger to humans and the environment.

One of the most effective ways to protect people and property from wildfires is reducing the available “fuel” around homes and communities. This is a major reason why Congress and the president must fix the "fire borrowing" situation (see Myth #3)—so the Forest Service can research and implement ways of reducing the risk of catastrophic wildfire.

3. Myth: As wildfires get worse, the Forest Service gets a lot more money to fight them

Reality: Today, the wildfire season is 60 to 80 days longer than it was three decades ago, and the fires burn twice as many acres. The cost of fighting the fires has gone up too: wildfires consumes nearly 50 percent of the Forest Service budget now, up from 13 percent of the agency’s budget in 1991. Despite these rising costs, total funding for the Forest Service has stayed the same. Spending such a large portion of the agency’s budget on fires means that funds once available for conservation, trail maintenance and forest restoration programs have decreased dramatically.

A firefighter on U.S. Forest Service land in Idaho. Credit: Lance Cheung (USDA), flickr.

Even though almost half of the Forest Service’s budget is now devoted to fire management, these funds often run out in the middle of wildfire season. This exacerbates the problem of decreased funding for conservation—to continue fighting wildfires, the Forest Service is force to rob already cash-strapped programs, a practice called “fire borrowing.”

Ironically, Forest Service programs whose funds are raided include fuel mitigation—activities that help maintain forest health and reduce the likelihood of future catastrophic wildfires. In this way, “fire borrowing” actually perpetuates the cycle of extreme fire seasons.

4. Myth: We deal with wildfires the same way as other natural disasters

Reality: In fact, the Forest Service is the only agency that is forced to pay to deal with natural disasters out of its regular funding.

Federal response to all other natural disasters, such as hurricanes, is funded through dedicated disaster funds. For wildfires, the Forest Service is allocated a fixed amount of money, and once these funds are used up, they are forced to borrow from other programs. A simple fix to the budgetary problem has been proposed in bipartisan legislation in Congress and in President Obama’s fiscal year 2016 budget: Funding suppression of the most extreme wildfires the same way that the U.S. deals with  other natural disasters, without raiding important conservation programs in the Forest Service budget.

5. Myth: Wildfire spending will continue to skyrocket no matter what

Reality:  This will be true if we don’t find a more responsible way to fund fire suppression and address the causes of rising fire costs. We must approach fire management in a new and strategic way.

One costly aspect of fighting fires is protecting inholdings – typically privately owned homes that are surrounded by national forest land. Protecting such property is a high priority for the Forest Service, but it is also extremely expensive.  Those costs can be reduced when the federal land agencies purchase inholdings or easements from willing sellers through the Land and Water Conservation Fund and the Forest Legacy Program.

A firefighter in Oregon oversees a prescribed burn to help stop a larger wildfire. Credit: Lance Cheung (USDA), flickr.

Another program, the Collaborative Forest Landscape Restoration Program, encourages science-based ecosystem restoration of priority forest areas. It has helped to reduce wildfire management costs, re-establish natural fire regimens and cut the risk of destructive wildfire. 

At The Wilderness Society, our scientists are studying wildfire in our national forests and our policy staff is working in Washington to enact legislation to fix the fire borrowing problem.