Forest Fire Research Questions the Wisdom of Prescribed Burns


This articles is about two opposite views regarding the benefits of small fires to prevent larger one. On one hand you have Dr. Hutto, Ornithologist at the University of Montana, who supports current theory of creating small fires to prevent devastating larger fires; while, on the other hand Dr. William Baker, a fire and landscape ecologist at the University of Wyoming, says that small fires do not prevent larger catastrophic one and that in fact larger fires are best for ecosystems, less expensive and we should put up with them. According to recent research from students followers of Dr. Baker who walked thousands of miles in the forest of Oregon, Colorado and Arizona concluded that the kind of limited fires that are being employed to control bigger fires were not as common in nature as has been thought and believes that large fires can be a shot of adrenaline that stimulates biodiversity. The study also concluded that even if small fire reduces fuels (number of trees), severe fires cannot be avoided because of extreme weather. Supporters of the free-fire theory say that while human lives and property should be protected, wildfires should be viewed as necessary ecological events that in essence reset the clock on a landscape to provide habitats for numerous species for years and even decades to come. Their theory is based on “disturbance ecology.” Dr. Hutto on the other side of the spectrum believes the Forest Service approach was misguided. He cites the return of the black-backed woodpecker to the burned site as evidence that although burned the forest is alive. He pointed out that morel mushrooms thrive on charred ground first, and then the birds, including the mountain bluebird and black-backed woodpecker, then move in. Also he adds another example in support of the benefits of control small fires –that of a plant called snowbush, which can remain dormant in the soil for centuries until heat from a fire cracks its seed coat, and it blooms profusely. It is obvious from the above that today scientists remain unclear over the existence of ecological advantage to thinning forests and using prescribed fire to reduce fuel for subsequent fires or whether those methods actually diminish ecological processes and biodiversity. At present the United States Forest Service, which manages nearly 200 million acres of public land, practices the theory that limited thinning and control burning will prevent catastrophic wildfires. In addition to protecting homes supporters of this theory believe that this method recreates the natural state of the forest. Where there is some evidence that support the free fire theory; they appear not to be sufficient at the moment to abandon the current practice.


-Sofia Guerra

Topics and category: Land and Water Use (forest fires)

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