Embers & Ecology Hessburg #5

“…it was now fire suppression, and not wildfires that would become a prime shaper of our forests.”

Today’s highlight of Dr. Hessburg’s TED talk “Why wildfires have gotten worse-and what we can do about it”, which can be viewed in full here, continues with yesterday’s theme of human influences on wildfire patterns.  Wildfire activity slowed with changes that European settlement brought to western landscapes, but things suddenly changed even more drastically in 1910 when a huge wildfire spread over the west burning  three million acres in just a few days and killed 87 people.  After that fire, dubbed the “Big Burn” wildfire became, as Dr. Hessburg puts it, “public enemy number one”.  The US Forest Service was tasked with putting out every wildfire that started and succeeded in this 95-98% of the time.  What’s more, timber harvest of western forests began in the 1940;s and 50s, removing the old, large, fire-resistant trees from the forests allowing for dense regeneration of young, fire-sensitive trees growing so closely their branches touched.  This flush of dense, young trees coupled with a new era of fire suppression began to change the historical patchwork, filling in open areas so that our landscapes became a blanket of trees, able to burn hot and unimpeded.

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