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Let it burn

In 2005 the USGS published a map of large fires (burns over 100 acres) from 1980-2005. It overlays with eerie fidelity the cartography of the public estate, or in the Great Plains with mixed landscapes of extensive grazing and public lands. In brief, America has extensive wildland fires because it has extensive wildlands. What are the options for managing wildland fire? After a century's experience, four strategies suggest themselves. They apply to those lands that are both public and fire-prone. There are, after all, public lands that are not disposed to burn (think Vermont), and there are highly flammable private lands for which a range of other arrangements are possible (say, Florida). For many observers, the simplest response is to leave the job to nature. The argument goes, fires are natural, and firefighting is expensive, dangerous, ineffective, and damaging. Not trying to suppress what should be allowed to free-range will be cheaper, safer, and more biologically benign. Let it burn. There are places and times where this strategy works, and current federal programs are pushing for more. But while the strategy's assets seem obvious, its liabilities are real. Long-burning fires produce lots of smoke, and if upwind of metropolitan areas they will compromise public health. (You can't light up a cigarette in a California bar but we might smoke in the Central Valley.) Long-loitering fires also have a tendency to go looking for trouble. It only takes a few escapes to wipe away all the cost savings and good will of the successes and put firefighters back into risky circumstances. Moreover, there is no reason to assume that such fires will behave as they would have in the past or that they will produce the same results. Particularly amid climate change and invasive species, "natural" fires may yield very unnatural results. From a biodiversity reckoning they may prove pennywise and pound foolish. The strategy will work best in remote places like interior Alaska or the Gila or Selway wildernesses. Elsewhere it must jostle for a role along with other strategies. That is the real lesson for all four options: none can succeed by itself, all must work in harness with others in proportion to what particular sites require. Besides, one might observe that removing the one creature with ecological agency over fire from fire's management might not, in the end, be very natural. ———- Steve Pyne is the author of Tending Fire: Coping with America’s Wildland Fires. He is a professor in the School of Life Sciences at Arizona State University.