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Dispatches from the Wild: Changing how the public perceives fire 

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From 2018, a lightning strike was spotted and called in by Benjamin Polley when he was a fire lookout at Scalplock Lookout in Glacier National Park. PHOTO BY BENJAMIN ALVA POLLEY

A new University of Montana study reveals fire suppression will continue creating mega-fires 

By Benjamin Alva Polley EBS COLUMNIST 

On March 25, the University of Montana published a study revealing that suppressing all wildfires has created an environment that selects wildfires to be more destructive.  

According to the study published in Nature Communications, these fires continue to burn across the landscape in extreme conditions with high severity and unintended consequences. The “fire suppression bias,” as it’s called in the study, makes wildfire activity more sensitive and responsive to global warming and fuel accumulation. This increases the impacts of climate change, adding more fuel to the fire. Land managers today are inviting a more severe future through fire suppression. However, smaller fires have many benefits, including fuel reduction, and they create opportunities for a new generation of plants to be established. 

“Over a human lifespan, the modeled impacts of the suppression bias outweigh those from fuel accumulation or climate change alone,” lead author Mark Kreider, a Ph.D. candidate in UM’s forest and conservation sciences program, told UM news. “This suggests that suppression may exert a significant and underappreciated influence on patterns of fire globally.” 

The problem 

Fire activity has been increasing rapidly across the globe over the last century, and fire suppression worsens the problem. Land managers have disproportionately removed low- and moderate-severity fires through fire suppression, leaving only the most extreme potential fires. This guarantees that most people’s experience with fire is negative because we only see the most devastating and scary fire events. Mega-fires have become almost impossible to stop without season-ending events like major rainstorms or snow that blanket and suffocate the fire so it can’t grow. 

“Our traditional fire suppression efforts are making the impacts of global warming more severe,” wrote Philip Higuera, a UM professor of forest ecology, in an email to EBS. “Part of the reason we are experiencing such a rapid increase in wildfire activity (e.g., in the West) is actually because we focused so long on putting out all fires.” 

Many plant and animal species have adapted to small- and medium-sized fires. However, when only giant fires rip through the landscape, species have more difficulty adapting because the fire becomes expansive and burns larger areas further from the seed source. 

“The probability of switching from a forest to a non-forest or having a very slow return to a forest is greater in those really severe extreme fire events,” Andrew J. Larson, Kreider’s advisor and professor of forest ecology at UM, told EBS. “It is harder and takes longer for those ecosystems to redevelop.” 

Extreme fires on the landscape change the composition and pattern of the ecosystems. This has implications for how ecosystems will reorganize in response to climate change. 

“This might alter natural selection. By removing all those instances of low-severity fire, we’re taking away the opportunity for organisms to interact with fire and to have the traits that confer resistance to that fire and the ability to recover from that fire,” Larson said. “They’re losing that selection pressure.” 

The solution 

Introducing small- and medium-sized fires at the right time of year and in the right places in the environment could help prevent mega-fires from consuming entire landscapes.  

“Our study tries to shift how the public sees fire,” Kreider told EBS. “The study has profound consequences for public support of fire management. When the only fires that make the news are the really high, extreme fires, we only allow extreme fires to interact with the landscapes, but this doesn’t have to be the case.” 

Kreider’s paper also identifies a problem different from the fire suppression paradox: excess fuel in the forest left by a century of fire suppression. 

The public’s concerns 

Significant concerns from the public about fire include property damage or loss, and the health impacts of breathing in too much smoke.  

The study does not suggest that every fire should be allowed to burn but that we as a society should consider, evaluate, and change how, when, and where land managers suppress fires, specifically around particular places where we have values at risk, like communities. We should thin those forests by hand instead of using fire as a tool. However, where we don’t have risks, fire can be a great way to manage larger fires. 

“If we have fires on our terms, fire under more moderate weather conditions, yes, they will create smoke,” Kreider said. “But in many cases, they produce lower levels of smoke than the big, catastrophic, high-severity fire. It’s a matter of choosing when and how we want our smoke to occur because regardless of whether we allow more fires to occur under safe conditions, more smoke will come with climate change.” 

Kreider added that it is crucial to invest in public health measures, make air filters more accessible, and create public air spaces or rooms in buildings with clean air. 

“Smoke is a huge issue and it will only get worse. The solution is learning how to live with smoke and mitigating those health consequences as best we can,” he said.  

Allowing more fires to burn when safely possible is crucial to addressing our nation’s fire crisis and helping to adapt to more fire-prone climate conditions now and in the future. Suppression is an important management tool that must be implemented quickly and aggressively around homes and communities, but not across entire forests. This study suggests that we must choose a management option between suppression and mega-fires in many places. 

The paper helps to expand that spectrum of management options. There’s no silver bullet or one-size-fits-all solution, but it provides more tools for managers to choose the best action for particular goals. 

Benjamin Alva Polley is a place-based storyteller with stories published in Outside, Adventure Journal, Popular ScienceField & StreamEsquireSierra, Audubon, Earth Island Journal, Modern Huntsman, and other publications at his website www.benjaminpolley.com/stories. He holds a master’s in Environmental Science and Natural Resource Journalism from the University of Montana. 

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