The Role of Fire: Now and Then

In the current century, the United States is experiencing the effects of the last century’s fire suppression policies. 100 years ago, fire was seen as destructive and terrifying. It destroyed timber of economic value and threatened lives. This was questioned at the beginning of the century by few. Many farmers and ranchers in the Southeast used fire as a tool. However, it was necessary to stamp out all use of fire in their policies to really sell the fact that fire was bad and fire suppression was the answer. Many saw the destructive nature and were supportive of stopping all fire. At the time, the United States Forest Service (USFS) was determining what the goal’s of the agency were regarding fire. The USFS Chief in 1920, Chief William Greeley described fire policy be saying “the conviction burned into me that fire suppression is the #1 job of the American Forester.” It was of the utmost importance to keep the forests from burning, and to protect timber for its economic value. These values influenced a generation of foresters to practice strict fire protection over all else. In regard to money, there was a belief that any expenditures that kept fires small were justified. There was very little boundaries in what could be done if fires were kept small. (218)

Policies affecting fire suppression weren’t really questioned again until the 1960’s. Public attitudes concerning public land management were beginning to change. USFS suppression policies and tactics hadn’t resulted in a decrease in resource damages, yet costs for suppression were continuing to rise. In the 1970’s, policy change happened and fire was allowed to be used for certain purpose due to awareness of the ecological importance of wildfire. However, there were still many concerns with allowing fire. The wildland urban interface had been dramatically increasing and is harder to protect. Furthermore, the accumulation of fuels in fire deprived fire-dependent forests is hazardous. These factors increase difficulty in controlling prescribed and wild fires.

Fire seems to be more accepted today than it. More and more studies are coming out that show the importance of having fire in ecosystems. There is less emphasis on the economic value of the forests and more emphasis on other forest values. As fire suppression costs continue to rise, solutions are being found elsewhere to maintain healthy forests. It’s becoming very clear that fire suppression was not the answer for many of our fire-dependent forests. We will find a way to live with fire and appreciate the value of fire in our forests.

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