Western United States Wildfires and Wildfire Suppression

Samantha Kushel Contributing Writer

It came to a huge shock to thousands of people this summer when we awoke to cloudy skies in New England, I remember going to social media to see what was happening and was stunned to found out this smoke that we were seeing came from the West coast fires! I immediately thought it was a joke because how could smoke from 3,000 miles away be here? This smoke was able to not only travel here but affect our air quality in so many places making it dangerous for a variety of different groups of people to walk outside.  The reason why these fires have gotten so out of hand is due to wildfire suppression acts that were put into place over a century ago, but we are still following them today and if we do not change them soon, it may be too late. 

Starting as early as 1905 when forest protection was reallocated into the hands of the United States Department of Agriculture Forest Services, there was an immediate switch in how they dealt with “protecting” the forests to this idea of fire suppression. Fire Suppression is a way of completely controlling fires and making sure they do not start, or last long if one were to arise, which in theory sounds like a great idea since who wants wild forest fires? In actuality though, research has been done since they made this decision in 1905 and many experts can agree something this a prescribed fire could be the solution to getting wildfires out west to calm down. A prescribed fire allows a lot of the forest fuel that sits in the wild to burn up and making bigger gaps in between the trees so if a wildfire were to break out without being planned, it would be significantly more manageable and would ruin less ecosystems in the forest as well as have less of an effect on humans, like burning down neighborhoods and lessening our air quality. 

While this has been a problem occurring for a long time now, it may seem like why is this an urgent matter right now to fix? The reason is if we are not as proactive as we possibly can be right now, fires are only going to get bigger and untamable in the West as we have seen slowly evolve in the last couple of decades. Shortages on water and record high timber prices prevented this change of stopping fire suppression from happening in the 1990’s, a time where environmental issues were finally being brought to the forefront of the average person’s mind and we started to see a huge demand from researchers and the public of the desire to stop fire suppression. Then, a decade ago when we again saw a rise in demand for putting fires suppression to a halt, we were not able to because of poor air quality from the already occurring fires. 

Public policy needs to be enacted on a state level to be able to deal with starting prescribed fires depending on each individual situation. We should not force a state like California to start these burns if they are already struggling heavily in air quality but in places like Montana who can afford the fires, they need to start implementing them. For the states that cannot yet jump on board, they should be looking at a system that can measure air quality and wind patterns to try and see a future where they can start prescribed fires. 

The wildfires are doing extreme harm to our bodies and environment. If we do not do something about it soon it will only get worse due to even higher temperatures creating worse conditions for forest. State level policies need to be looked at depending on what each state can handle, if they can handle prescribed fires than I think that is their best bet and for the states that cannot yet handle it due to severe conditions, they need to pass policies to get conditions into place to be able to start prescribed fires. 

References 

Busenberg, George (2004). Wildfire management in the United States: The Evolution of Policy  

Failure. Review of Policy Research. https://onlinelibrary.wiley.com/doi/10.1111/j.1541- 1338.2004.00066.x?__cf_chl_jschl_tk__=pmd_VykE4f3e3_G6esTUkAo_8gq2LIimzJRJ 7CD8bJmClO0-1635258341-0-gqNtZGzNAlCjcnBszQvl. 

Calkin, D.E., Thompson, M.P. & Finney, M.A (2015). Negative consequences of positive  feedbacks in US wildfire management. https://doi.org/10.1186/s40663-015-0033-8

Miller, C., O’Neill, S., Rorig, M., & Alvarado, E. (2019). Air-Quality Challenges of Prescribed  Fire in the Complex Terrain and Wildland Urban Interface Surrounding Bend, Oregon.doi:10.3390/atmos10090515. 

Peterson, Molly (2018). Why California’s Best Strategy Against Wildfires is Hardly Ever Used. 

Kqed.org. https://www.kqed.org/science/1927354/controlled-burns-can-help-solve-californias-fire-problem-so-why-arent-there-more-of-them. 

Shaw, D. T., Henderson, R. T., & Cardona, M. E. (1992). Urban Drought Response in Southern  California: 1990-91. Journal (American Water Works Association)http://www.jstor.org/stable/41294302. 

Sohngen, Brent & Haynes, Richard (1994). The “Great” Price Spike of ’93: An Analysis of  Lumber and Stumpage Prices in the Pacific Northwest. United States Department Of  Agriculture. pnw_rp476.pdf (fs.fed.us). 

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