Editor’s Note: This column was written by Interior Secretary Ryan Zinke and appeared in U.S. Today.
The flames of the Ferguson Fire in California have become the latest symbols of a seemingly perennial challenge of fighting fires in the West. I just returned from the Ferguson Fire camp, where I met with firefighters who are working to combat the fire as it bears down on Yosemite National Park and its visitors, workers and nearby residents.
There are currently about 100 wildfires burning across the west, forcing tens of thousands of people to evacuate. Many have lost all but the clothes on their backs. We are just now hitting the peak of a traditional fire season and already this year we have seen about 5 million acres of land and thousands of structures destroyed. We’ve lost friends and neighbors, including firefighters who dropped everything to respond to the call to duty. Their service and sacrifice will never be forgotten.
The fires are burning hotter and more intense, due in part to hot and dry weather and in part to the fuels that overload our forests. These fuels fill forests from the floor, where highly-combustible, dry pine needles act as kindling to jump-start the tiniest spot fire, all the way up to the crown where beetle-killed trees dot the mountains like matches. In between the floor and the crown, there are years’ worth of dead logs, overgrown shrubs and snags, which many firefighters call “widow makers” because they are so deadly. The buildup of fuels is the condition we can and must reverse through active forest management like prescribed burns, mechanical thinning and timber harvests.
Why we need to manage our forests
There are three reasons for active forest management:
First, it is better for the environment to manage the forests. Wildfires produce smoke and emissions. The release of gases and particles can negatively affect air quality. Fires also damage watersheds, and as we see fires burning hotter and longer, the soil is actually becoming scorched and sterilized, preventing regrowth. In addition, while many of the frivolous lawsuits waged to stop timber harvests cite habitat as a concern, environmental litigants are little concerned when an entire forest burns to the ground and the habitat and wildlife are lost.
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