The catastrophic fires in Colorado this week have been all over the news. Thousands of fire fighters are battling the blazes as over ten thousand people have fled from the approaching fires. Even President Barack Obama visited the state. There is no way to talk about the fires in any terms other than “disaster,” but unfortunately, given a series of poor fire ecology decisions and our changing climate, these disasters may be more and more common.
Smokey the Bear is at least in part responsible for the Colorado fires. Not literally – a gigantic forest ranger-bear hybrid didn’t go around lighting trees on fire or anything – but the program of fire suppression started in the early 20th century and represented by the anthropomorphic bear certainly helped set in motion the fire problem we face today.
The western United States’ forests have always burned and its charred fingerprint can be seen in the forest’s ecology: a large number of forest plant species depend on these burns to activate seed germination or clear out competitors. Many of these fires were started naturally through events like lightning strikes. Other fires were set by people: the landscape that John Muir and the rest of the white naturalists fell into was not untouched by the hands of man, but often cultivated by indigenous people. Fire is and always was an integral part of the ecology of the western forests.
As more and more people began to move into the western states, the fires began to threaten more and more lives, homes, and businesses. The new settlers created some of this problem themselves by setting accidental fires. The Forest Service responded in the worst possible way: launching the Smokey the Bear campaign and suppressing all fires, regardless of their origin or threat. As fire frequency dropped, the amount of fire fuel – dead trees, leaf litter, etc – built up.
Attitudes towards fire are changing now: natural fires that do not threaten people are left to burn out on their own, and firefighters and forestry workers set “controlled burns” or highly supervised fires intended to clear out some of the fire fuel and create appropriate growth conditions for the forest plant species. However, even with these changes, the years of fire suppression have led to the build up of huge amounts of fire fuel.
All of that fire fuel might be manageable if it weren’t for the one-two punch of climate change: increasing droughts lead to more fire fuel and increasing temperatures lead to more difficult-to-contain fires. Over the past few decades, the western United States has seen high levels of drought and this year was no exception. Well, except that it was an unexceptionally exceptionally dry year. The snowpack in the Colorado mountains was much lighter than usual and the peak snowpack was reached much earlier than usual, setting us up for a long, dry summer.
And once a fire starts, the large amount of fire fuel created by fire suppression and drought can create a very intense and hard-to-contain fire. Unlike controlled or natural burns, which are crucial for forest ecology, these massive fires can destroy forest canopies and change fundamental forest attributes. Fire fighters must battle against truly intense and powerful blazes, and without aid from nature in the form of cool temperatures, rains, or low-to-no winds, they face a truly daunting task.
The situation is serious but not insurmountable. We can’t reverse climate change or the fire suppression of the 20th century, but we can adapt to it. Educating citizens about what they can do to prevent accidental forest fires, like putting out camp fires or properly disposing of cigarettes, will continue to have a positive impact. After all, without ignition, the fire can’t start. Furthermore, the implementation of fire knowledge gained through fire ecology research is already playing a big role in positively affecting western forests. The controlled burns and the acknowledgment of the necessity of some fire for a health ecosystem are already going a long way. And while we’re at it, providing more support to fire fighters wouldn’t be a bad way to go.