Science and Tech


Maybe We Should Just Let Wildfires Burn

Experts say smaller, more frequent fires would reduce the amount of fuel that can support large, uncontrollable fires.
Posted at 4:29 PM, Aug 18, 2016

Wildfires are as much a force of nature as tornadoes. Preventing them entirely is out of the question — no matter what Smokey says — but there's good evidence our vigorous firefighting efforts are actually making them worse.

Putting out tiny fires early leaves more fuel for the big ones, which burn more area and cost more to suppress than ever.

SEE MORE: If It Feels Like Wildfires Are Getting Bigger, It's Because They Are

The worst 2 percent of fires now account for 97 percent of area burned and firefighting expense. In 2015, more than half the U.S. Forest Service budget went to fighting wildfires.

Experts agree: Letting smaller fires run their course is a good way to reduce the risk of bigger, more damaging ones. But the Forest Service has one good reason and one weird reason to put them out quickly.

The good reason: Letting fires burn — even with supervision — puts people and property at risk. Controlled burns sometimes go uncontrolled.

The weird reason: Thanks to how federal funding works, putting out fires can be easier to pay for than preventing them in the first place.

Controlled burning and fuel reduction costs come out of a national forest's annual budget. Paying to suppress wildfires comes from separate congressional earmarks or emergency funds. Typically, there's a lot more money there.

Experts want to change how the Forest Service pays for and fights fires, but it will take time — and the public will have to get used to smaller, more frequent fires.