Beyond the fear of flames…Using fire to protect people, restore forests

Smoke column at Trapper Ridge fire. Photo by John McCarthy.

The Wilderness Society’s Rich Fairbanks is standing on top of a flatbed trailer outside of Red Bluff, California, speaking to a bunch of ranchers and federal officials. The fire program specialist extols the virtues of making greater use of a practice called controlled burns, fires purposefully set by experts to help manage everything from forests to private lands.

“Controlled burns help protect people and property — including firefighters — by clearing out brush that could lead to catastrophic fires later,” Fairbanks says. “My job is to help bring the private sector and public sector together to find solutions that are good for communities and good for the environment.”

His message of protection is one The Wilderness Society can’t emphasize enough. “No one wants to see fires overtake homes and communities,” he adds. “Our goal is help reduce the risk of those kinds of tragedies.”

Meanwhile, back in Washington D.C., TWS National Forest Policy Analyst Cecilia Clavet is pounding the marble hallways of the U.S. Capitol. She’s speaking to congressional aides about the need for Congress to pass a variety of bills that would make a significant impact on wildfire policy.

“You’ve got to educate Congress if you want to make a difference on an issue,” Clavet says. “You’ve got to let them know what the agencies responsible for dealing with wildfire are doing right and wrong, and you’ve got to show them the research that makes the case to them for investing in the right kinds of actions.”

That’s where The Wilderness Society’s scientists come in. Anchored in his Denver office, senior forest scientist Greg Aplet is poring over piles of notes to synthesize the consensus of fire scientists like himself — guiding the TWS brain trust as it aligns federal policy and management with what the facts convey.

“Our goal is to enact policies and gain more support for allowing wildfire to play its natural role in the landscape,” Aplet says. “Fire plays a critical role in restoring forests by consuming the build-up of wood and forest litter, recycling soil nutrients, and rejuvenating the forest.”

None of the conservationists have easy jobs.

“A fear of fire is inherent in all human beings,” Clavet says, “but there are benefits that come with wildfires that don’t threaten people and their homes.”

Firefighter with drip torch. Photo by John McCarthy.

Despite this inextricable link between fire and the land, fire management policy has been largely grounded in the belief that all fires should be extinguished, even in relatively remote portions of ecosystems that depend on the ageless cycle of disturbance and renewal associated with fire.

While these fire suppression efforts have been resoundingly successful, they have also had significant unintended and decidedly negative consequences. Interrupting natural fire regimes has thrown ecosystems out of balance, and in many places, has actually increased the risk of unnaturally severe fire through the buildup of highly flammable fuels.

The Wilderness Society seeks to reverse that course…to use science that informs on-the-ground education and policy advocacy. Back up on that truck, Fairbanks strikes his favorite chord one more time.

“Managed properly,” he says, “fire makes forests and communities healthier and safer.”

Smoke column at Trapper Ridge fire. Photo by John McCarthy.
Firefighter with drip torch. Photo by John McCarthy.