Updates & Blog

Fighting fire with fire: wildfires & prescribed burning

Rae Tamblyn
Director, #forestproud
Society of American Foresters
Graphic of trees with flames. Words on image: forest management is the solution

Since pre-historic times, fire has played a role in shaping North America’s forests, removing dead and unhealthy trees, fostering new growth, and returning important nutrients to the soil. We sometimes refer to forests that have evolved with fire as “fire-dependent” forests.

As our populations grew, there were more people living in and among forests, creating what we now call the “wildland urban interface” aka WUI (pronounced: “woo-wee.”) For the better part of the last century, we actively suppressed natural fire cycles to protect Americans’ homes and communities. Today, as a direct result, natural fire cycles have essentially been eliminated, and our forests have become unnaturally dense and packed with fuel for wildfires to burn.

Over 90% of wildfires are human caused (insert #forestproud friend Smokey Bear’s voice: #onlyyou), and some of them, fueled by this buildup up of dead dry and thick undergrowth, can grow to become catastrophic, threatening lives, communities, natural resources, and public infrastructure.

We know you’ve noticed it, too: in the wrong place at the wrong time, fire can spell big problems. Catastrophic wildfires have the power to turn our forests from carbon sinks into carbon sources. Wildfires generally produce really bad smoke, and, based on the latest research, that smoke will only get worse.

Unfortunately, throughout North America, there is no longer a “wildfire season” (the time of year when fires are most likely to spark and burn) but rather a “fire year.” Made worse by the changing climate, the US now battles wildfire year-round, with some regions experiencing over 300 days a year of fire risk.