Recent research by the US Forest Service confirms much of what forest ecologist have been saying for over two decades. In the West, prior to fire suppression efforts in the early 20th Century, wildfires were common. However, these were "low intensity" fires, usually "cleaning out" brush and downed woody debris. Environmental historian Nancy Langston in her book Forest Dreams, Forest Nightmares: The Paradox of Old Growth in the Inland West, wrote eloquently about how early European settlers arriving in southeast Washington and the Oregon Willowas, saw park-like stands of Ponderosa pine, where you could distinctly see through the forest because tree density was not as intense as it is nowadays.
While we all love Smokey Bear (I have a lot of Smokey Bear memorabilia in my office), the science around fire suppression was, well, wrong. Adding to fire suppression, silviculturalists who understood the role of fire in regenerating stands of Douglas fir, attempted to mimic fire by clear-cutting stands hoping to enhance the natural regeneration and planting. All of these methods have led to the fuel that burns. Enhanced by even minute shifts in climate over time, and where there is fuel, there will be fire as long as there are sparks.
An even greater issue is the human dimension of this issue, which is the zoning codes that permit, or even encourage, development in wildfire prone areas. It has reached a point where, in some areas, almost all human development is in a fire prone area (who would have thought, 15 years ago, that the California wine country in Napa and Sonoma counties could be a wildfire prone area?). Human development puts our wildfire fighters at enormous risk defending homes, businesses, and whole communities, when perhaps, the best ecological thing we can do is to let the fire burn.
So what do we do? One thing is to continue supporting government led studies to understand wildfires. A second thing is if your home is in a wildfire area, make sure you have had a defensible space assessment done and follow the recommendations. Essentially insulating your structures from the fire path, limbing trees near the structure, creating a break between any grass and the structure, and even placement of the structure if you are just beginning to build. Now is the time to think about defensible space. Give us a call, we can help.