Tag: Max Moritz

Good Fire, Bad Fire: An Ecologist’s Perspective

The 2012 Pacific Northwest wildfire season was one for the record books.

In Idaho, the Mustang Complex alone burned 300,000 acres. In Washington, over 350,000 total acres burned and fire suppression costs alone totaled more than $88 million dollars. Not exactly chump change in this time of fiscal cliffs and sequestration.

Yet, fire always has been and always will be an integral part of our western forests. Fire is both inevitable and is the ultimate contradiction; often beautiful, terrifying, destructive, renewing and life-giving, all at the same time. Yet, our management of western forests over the past century has broken this natural link with fire, leaving our forests vulnerable to uncharacteristically large and destructive fire and insect and disease outbreaks. Climate change will only increase these vulnerabilities.

In my role as a forest ecologist I spend a lot of time talking about the risks of “uncharacteristic fire” (bad!) and the importance of “prescribed fire” (good!) in restoring healthy and resilient forests.

Our official tagline is “The Nature Conservancy works to maintain fire’s role where it benefits people and nature, and keep fire out of places where it is destructive”. An excellent sentiment, but the line between fire that “benefits people and nature” and fire that is “destructive” can be quite blurry.

Last September an intense late summer lightning storm rolled across the Pacific Northwest, starting fires in Washington, Oregon, and Idaho. That month I had a series of meetings across eastern Washington and northern Idaho. No matter where I traveled, I couldn’t escape the smoke. During the day visibility was terrible and at night my eyes stung and my throat hurt, even when holed up in my hotel room. No fun – that much smoke must certainly indicate a “bad fire”, right?

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