When you think of preventing forest fires, chances are Smokey the Bear comes to mind. Smokey Bear has been the face of America’s forest fire policies, policies that haven’t changed in nearly a century. But has the Smokey the Bear campaign failed us?
In recent years rising temperatures and drought combined with a buildup of forest tender and overgrowth has led to massive wildfires that are on average more than five times larger than the fires we saw throughout the 1970s. For the better part of a century America’s fire policies have focused on fire suppression, which combined with drought and little active management have led to more megafires.
Our dependence on outdated fire policies have had multiple unintended consequences. Not only are wildfires burning bigger and hotter than ever, but they’re costing more than ever to fight. In August the U.S. Forest Service ran out of money to fight forest fires (for the seventh time since 2002). The shortfall forced administrators to remove money from other programs including wildfire prevention.
This creates a vicious cycle. Money dedicated to thinning and land management gets reallocated to fire fighting efforts. In turn, with less effort concentrated on reducing the risk of wildfires, more severe wildfires break out across the United States, once again overburdening suppression efforts and requiring administrators to tap related budgets and divert funds to suppression efforts. Season after season the cycle repeats itself. As soon as the coffers are replenished the money goes right back out the door.
To combat wildfires in the next century we need to shift our views on wildfire management policy. We need to change how we look at wildfires from a basic level. Some experts suggest that wildfires be treated like other natural disasters and that an emergency fund be created to help fund fire suppression efforts. Budgets can then be allocated and maintained for the purpose of preventing fires in the first place. Management practices like thinning and removing overburden and dead and decaying material can help make our forest floors more fire resistant. Controlled burns can help promote all around healthier forests.
Second stewardship contracts are another area that can help improve forest health and ease the financial burden of land management. According to the government Forests and Rangelands website, “Stewardship contracting can produce desirable results including improving forest health and providing benefits to rural communities. Among other things, stewardship contracting allows forest products to be exchanged for ecological restoration services, which may include thinning and removing brush.” Stewardship contracting allows private organizations or businesses to do the necessary thinning and remove small trees and undergrowth and as partial payment, stewardship contractors are able to keep part of what they remove.
These are examples of long term strategies for combating wildfire. It’s time we look past our current policies and focus on efforts to help improve the health and financial viability of our forests for the future. Current policies no longer cut it. It’s time we take a proactive approach to fighting wildfires.