Our history of suppressing wildfires over the past century is coming back to haunt us. Our once patchy landscape that worked to slow the spread of wildfires is now a carpet of trees without natural fire breaks and with an accumulation of fuels in the understory ready to feed the next wildfire. Coupled with warmer, drier, and windier summers, wildfires are becoming more frequent, larger, and burning hotter, reshaping the habitat our wildlife depends on.
Research shows that removing the buildup of forest litter, brush, and densely stocked small trees can reduce the spread and intensity of wildfires and that flames are less likely to reach the canopy of larger trees, giving them a good shot at surviving. Most often in the US, selective logging, also called thinning, is used to treat forests that have grown unnaturally dense after a century of fire suppression. Thinning is widely used as a management tool to prevent extreme fires, and its benefits are clear. Densely growing trees are stressed for water and light, spread disease and insect infestations, and allow flames to spread easily from treetop to treetop. Plus, thinning projects contribute to local economies by providing jobs for loggers, truckers, and sawmill workers. However, thinning alone is not the answer to slowing our trend in extreme wildfires since an overabundance of trees is only part of the problem. Forest litter such as dead branches, leaves, twigs, and needles are the fuel wildfires need to grow and so simply removing trees from a forest does little to slow subsequent wildfires. Fortunately, there is a way to make our landscapes more resilient to extreme wildfires: fuels reduction through prescribed burning.
For thinning treatments to be effective they must be followed by prescribed burning, which is our most powerful tool for wildfire reduction. Prescribed burns are the only practical way to remove the enormous buildup of forest litter and brush, which forms the bulk of the fuel that feeds a wildfire. In fact, thinning without prescribed burning can make the situation worse since thinning operations leave behind slash and an open forest canopy that lets in more sunlight, drying out the forest litter. While selective logging may be popular with policymakers and give us a sense of action and security, albeit a largely false sense of security, prescribed burning is unpopular largely because of the undesirable smoke it causes. But the smoke caused by prescribed burns is nothing compared to the amount produced by an extreme fire; pay a little now or pay a lot later.
As hunters and anglers that depend on healthy ecosystems and habitats to keep our forests and rivers abundant, we must support and push for more prescribed burning as the best tool for creating resilient landscapes under extreme fire conditions.