Friday, August 11, 2017

Scientists argue forest fires should be allowed to burn; critics say that idea, and fires, go too far

A black-backed woodpecker chick peeks from its nest.
(New York Times photo by Noah Berger)
A debate is raging among scientists, firefighters, government officials, and the public: Should forest fires be allowed to burn? And if so, how much? Scientists know that fires are healthy for a forest: the fires clear away dead branches so undergrowth can get better sunlight, the ash fertilizes the trees and other vegetation, and some organisms need the fires: evergreens like the lodgepole pine produce seeds only after a fire.

Some scientists "argue that the century-old American practice of suppressing wildfires has been nothing less than a calamity. They are calling for a new approach that basically involves letting backcountry fires burn across millions of acres," Justin Gills reports for The New York Times. "In principle, the federal government accepted a version of this argument years ago, but in practice, fires are still routinely stamped out across much of the country. To the biologists, that has imperiled the plants and animals — hundreds of them, it turns out — that prefer to live in recently burned forests." That includes the black-backed woodpecker.

The John Muir Project of the Earth Island Institute in Berkeley, Calif., has filed a petition to list the black-backed woodpecker as threatened under the Endangered Species Act. "A listing for black-backed woodpeckers would almost certainly require a new approach to forest fires that would include allowing some fires caused by lightning to burn. The lucrative, and scientifically controversial, practice of logging trees just after a fire might well be banned across large areas, since those dead trees turn out to be important habitat for many types of creatures, including the woodpeckers," Gills reports. The Interior Department must rule on the petition by Sept. 30. If it is turned down, environmental groups will likely sue.

U.S. Forest Service scientist Malcolm North says the group's efforts to preserve habitats helped by fire are admirable, but go too far in suggesting that even the biggest fires are beneficial. Such fires can imperil human lives and property, like the 2016 wildfire at Gatlinburg, Tenn., that killed 14 people and destroyed over 2,000 structures. Fire-friendly advocates say that redirecting resources from firefighting to fireproofing homes would increase safety, but that's a hard sell. Timothy Ingalsbee, a former firefighter who now runs advocacy group Firefighters United for Safety, Ethics and Ecology, told Gills: "People like to do whatever they damn well please on their own land. But when a wildfire comes, they’re calling Uncle Sam saying, 'Please, come save me.'"

Ingalsbee says the families of firefighters killed in forest fires are increasingly suing the government, alleging that fighting the fires is unnecessarily dangerous. "The lives of young people are not worth saving trees that really need to burn anyway," says Ingalsbee.

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