The Rim Fire in Yosemite has been called apocalyptic. This fire is so large that it’s creating its own weather patterns, moving itself along.
As flames leap through treetops towards groves of ancient sequoias and burn through nearly 200,000 acres of land, they’re helping to fuel a debate about fire management as well.
For over a hundred years, there’s been a dialogue about fire suppression in the United States, and in the last fifty years the debate has gotten even more heated.
The History of US Fire Suppression
To those who could lose their homes, fires are terrifying. Animals die, property is damaged, and ecosystems change. Since ecosystems and the plants within them can grow on very long time scales, these ecological changes last for generations of humans.
Just as we try to control floods by adding levees to the sides of rivers, we have been controlling fires for many years as well. In the late 1800s, as settlements became more dense in areas prone to forest fires, people realized that fire could be a threat to what sustained them.
Concerned about saving timber supplies, watersheds, and homes from fires, the policy of fire suppression became prominent. Smokey the Bear came on the scene in 1944, and this iconic character gave a voice to human concerns about fire, trying to ensure that people would become fire aware and fire safe. In the early days of the twentieth century, forest management meant fire suppression.
Understanding Fire Ecology
However, in the 1960s and 1970s, research began to show that suppessing fires had challenging side effects. Fire suppression led to the buildup of flammable debris, and this debris made the forests even more prone to catching on fire. Researchers also discovered that fire has a number of ecological roles to play in a forest.
Yes, fire devastates the ecosystem that exists, but in doing so it can open the door for new plants to start the succession process over again. The burned wood can enrich the soil and can allow seeds like Lodgepole Pine and Sequoia to grow. This ecological benefit is particularly true when you’re talking about smaller, less intense fires. Smaller ground fires clear out the undergrowth. They reduce the amount of fuel that’s available for large, intense fires, and they help the new seedlings of baby trees find nutrients and light.
Controlled Burning: Dangerous or Necessary?
Over time, fire suppression changed into a new approach: one that would allow fires to burn when they occurred naturally. More controversial is the practice of prescribed or controlled burning, a technique that introduces fire into an area to control the amount of flammable debris or to encourage new growth. This might occur when people are trying to restore a prairie environment or when they’re trying to keep a larger, more intense fire like the Rim Fire from starting.
Rim Fire: Catalyst for New Fire Management Techniques?
What role does Yosemite’s history play in today’s fire, and how will the Rim Fire shape the future of fire management in the area? Is allowing forest fires to burn a ludicrous idea or one that can enrich ecosystems and save ecosystems and settlements from larger future fires? The discussion around when to set fires and when to allow them to burn is one that’s still evolving, and the results of the Rim Fire will play a role in this ongoing dialogue about the relationship between people and the fires that they fear.
Active Fire Mapping Program. Current Fires. (2013). Accessed August 30, 2013.
Forest History. History of Fire Suppression. Accessed August 30, 2013.
Pacific Biodiversity Institute. Fire Ecology. Accessed August 30, 2013.