Fire is the rapid oxidation of burnable materials in a chemical process requiring oxygen, heat, fuel, and a source of ignition.
Fuels are the only practical component that can be controlled in wildlands since oxygen and heat are uncontrollable in open settings. In order to minimize the negative environmental effects of wildfire, available fuels must be kept to a reasonable level so that when fire occurs, the intensity and potential destruction of fire is minimized.
Major factors influencing fire behavior include weather conditions, such as temperature, wind and humidity, and the volume, dryness and combustibility of fuels and the terrain. Once a fire has ignited, dangerous fire behavior can result from excessive fuel loads and weather conditions, making fire suppression extremely treacherous and in some situations impossible.
While humans cause most wildfires, the vast majority of wildfire acres burned are because of lightning striking combustible material. Once fire ignites it will continue to burn as long as fuel, oxygen and heat are sufficient to continue the combustion process. A fire can quickly be spread by wind and thermals carrying burning embers to other combustible sources far beyond the flames.
In natural settings, fires continue to burn until they reach areas where there are insufficient fuels for them to continue. Rain and/or cold temperatures also reduce the heat necessary to continue combustion.
Native tribes used fire extensively to maintain open lands for access, hunting and rejuvenation of plants. Their actions augmented natural fire’s cleansing so when early settlers arrived, the forests were generally open and healthy. Fire’s action in reducing fuel loads was interrupted by human fire suppression many years ago, resulting in a buildup of fuels and more severe fires.
Since human action interrupted fire’s natural action of reducing fuel loads, we as a society have an obligation to manage our lands and the fuels that create catastrophic fire in order to minimize potential severe fire damage.
With the huge buildup of fuels in our forests today there is great concern regarding the destruction of lives and property, as evidenced by recent severe fires throughout our western states. Wildfires kill wildlife, harm fish and water quality and, in some cases, actually can change the ecology of the burned area. Wildfires endanger the safety and lives of firefighters and civilians. Smoke especially is an issue for those with respiratory problems.
Effective forest management should focus on maintaining low levels of fuels so that once a wildfire has ignited, it can be controlled and damage minimized. A major obstacle to effective forest management is the multitude of complex and sometimes conflicting regulations that must be followed.
Federal land management agencies are especially hindered with the complex requirements of various laws and regulations, which in many cases require multiple years to complete prior to any actual on-the-ground activity.
The result of requiring months and even years of office work ends up limiting significant on-the-ground activity.
Addressing the excessive fuels problem and allowing for proactive forest management will require congressional representatives making essential changes to the current regulatory situation and land managers effectively managing for fuels control.
Costs for wildland fire suppression continue to escalate each year while there is little, if any, effort to control the excessive fuels situation. Until Congress takes effective action to enable proactive management of federal lands, the current situation in wildlands will continue to deteriorate, further enabling severe wildfires that will damage air, water, wildlife and ecosystems and escalate the costs for fire suppression.