The United States of Fire

Last updated on February 13th, 2024

Laura Spellman, a “hot shot” firefighter, uses a drip torch to burn vegetation as part of efforts to contain a 2018 wildfire in Mendocino National Forest, Calif. Photo Credit: Cecilio Ricardo / U.S. Forest Service.

When the Creek Fire roared to life near Shaver Lake, Calif., last September, it chewed through the area’s overgrown, sickly forests, belching smoke and spitting out blackened, matchstick trunks.

But in forests owned by the electrical utility Southern California Edison, the Creek’s famished roar turned to a purr. The wildfire licked over the landscape, charring mature trees but not killing them. There simply wasn’t enough fuel — dense, dry shrubs and drought-stricken trees — to feed the fire to excess.

This was in large part thanks to John Mount, a retired California Edison forester. In 1979, Mount quietly began setting controlled burns on the utility’s land surrounding Shaver Lake. His fires cleared overgrown brush and weeded out small and unhealthy trees. At the time, this flew in the face of conventional forestry practice, which, for a century, had labored to extinguish all fires as quickly as possible.

Mount discovered setting moderate fires protects and rejuvenates the land, and prevents intense wildfire. Credit: John Mount.

As a forestry student, the stance had made no sense to Mount. California’s forests thrived before modern wildfire control. “I simply asked myself a question,” Mount said. “If lightning has been starting fires for millennia, why are we putting them out?” Mount discovered for himself what North America’s native peoples had known for centuries: Setting moderate fires protects and rejuvenates the land, and prevents intense, dangerous wildfire.

Now, after a record-busting fire season that scorched 4 million acres in California alone, it’s clear that our forests are starving for “good” fire — not just in the West, but across the country.

The gargantuan scale of the problem means that restoring flames to fire-famished forests won’t be easy or quick. With money and manpower, though, it can be done. “I’m more hopeful today than I’ve been for a while,” says Brittany Dyer, American Forests’ California state director. “Everyone is angry at the state of our forests. And once you get to anger, you get change.”

Native Flames

This 1905 photo from the southern rim of the Grand Canyon shows the parklike conditions once common in western forests. Photo Credit: U.S. Geological Survey.

The first Europeans to arrive in North America found a land of seemingly divine abundance: a profusion of nut trees and berry bushes, grassy clearings swarming with deer, parklike woodlands that you could drive a wagon through. It wasn’t providence they should have thanked, but native people.

For millennia, tribes across North America used fire as a tool to favor useful plants and animals. Fire regenerates bushes that produce food, dye, medicine and materials for baskets and tools. It aids oaks, and other trees that grow edible nuts, and opens up grazing areas for game animals. Ron Goode, the chairman of California’s North Fork Mono Tribe and an advocate for the restoration of tribal burning, explains: “The forest is a garden, and the native people took care of it.”

In the wildfire-prone landscapes of the western U.S., burning was also a matter of safety. It helped to prevent wildfires from encroaching on villages and kept extensive trail networks open as evacuation routes. People and wildlife used these trails when it was time to flee. “Lion has her kids, bear has her kids, deer has her kids,” Goode says. “Better hope no one is hungry.”

Tribes burned throughout the year, setting many small fires that added up in a big way. In California, an estimated 4.5 to 12% of the state’s land burned before Europeans arrived. Tribes burned around 2% of this total, or roughly 2 million acres, according to Goode. Now, in stark contrast, California burns somewhere between 50,000 and 125,000 acres a year.

The result of all that burning was a profoundly different landscape from the one we see today. Compared to today’s overcrowded forests, “the basal distance between trees was huge,” Goode says. “You might be talking 50 feet.” Burning created a rich patchwork of oak savannahs, meadows and pine-dotted slopes. Fire-adapted species flourished: not only oaks, but also sequoias, Ponderosas and other hardy conifers. Frequent, low-level fire also favored big, mature trees, which are more flame-proof than little ones. “It was well-documented that a ‘small’ tree was 6 feet in diameter,” Goode says.

Tribes set fires in all corners of the country, even in the East’s wet, fire-resistant woodlands. Many eastern forests that are now dim, dense thickets of trees and tangling underbrush were, for centuries, open, park-like spaces, with a far greater dominance of flame-resistant, food- bearing trees: American chestnuts, which are now functionally extinct due to disease, along with oaks and hickories.

Starved of fire, eastern oak-hickory forests are being outcompeted by northern hardwood species that grow profusely in ample rain and rich soil. This is bad news for nut-loving wildlife, as well as for communities that want to protect their forests for the future. Oaks and hickories are “better situated than northern hardwoods with dealing with a changing climate,” says Bill Zipse, a supervising forester with the New Jersey Forest Service. By letting less-resilient trees like beech and sugar maple overrun forests, “you might be setting yourself up with something more fragile now than what you started with.”

Flame Wars

Wildlands firefighters set “backburns” to control the 2020 Pine Gulch Fire, the second-largest wildfire in Colorado history. Credit: Kyle Miller, Wyoming Hotshots / U.S. Forest Service.

At first, Europeans didn’t snuff out all fire. Many colonizers actually adopted tribal burning methods, after seeing the good it did for the land. In the early days of the United States Forest Service, foresters debated whether total fire suppression was the goal, or if the “Indian way” of light burning should be.

The Great Fire of 1910 scorched all debate, along with 3 million acres in Idaho and Montana. This mammoth conflagration stunned the country and cemented the Forest Service’s zero-tolerance approach to wildfire. From then on out, all wildfire had to go, as soon as possible. In 1935, the agency institutionalized its infamous “10 a.m. policy” — the practice of put- ting out a wildfire the morning after its initial report. A decade later, Smokey Bear cemented the idea that forest fires are wasteful, even immoral.

Deprived of tribal burning, forests started to go haywire. The diverse mosaic of habitats that moderate burns once maintained turned to uniform sweeps of rangy, same-aged trees. Moist forests grew denser, wetter and less likely to burn. Dry forests, conversely, grew more likely to burn — not with your everyday “good” fire, but in tree-torching infernos. As Western forests racked up a deep “fire debt,” they grew cramped and unhealthy. Overcrowded trees competed for water, sunlight and nutrients, and succumbed to drought and bark beetle outbreaks that past forests had been able to withstand.

In California, the few advocates for controlled burning fought a current of entrenched belief.

“My mom even at one point burned a couple of times, and she got in trouble for it,” Goode recalls. “The fire people showed up, the sheriffs showed up. They all wanted to arrest her.” As for Mount, during his brief stint with the Forest Service before California Edison, he was “chastised quite soundly” for suggesting that fire could be good.

The legacy of over a century of fire famine — and decades of climate inaction — is now inescapable. Since 2014, drought and beetles alone have killed a staggering 162 million trees in California’s national forests. Fire seasons have grown longer, costlier and more severe. Last year’s record-breaking infernos in California, Colorado and Oregon underscored the apocalyptic cost of ignoring forest health. “The wildfires were not unforeseen or accidental,” says Dyer, of American Forests. “It was a bomb that was ready to go off.”

Florida on Fire

With 1.5 to 2.5 million acres of controlled burns a year, Florida’s fire culture sets itself apart. Photo Credit: Carlton Ward Jr. / The Nature Conservancy.

Hope for our fire-hungry forests might, of all places, come from Florida, a state more famous for spring break than land stewardship. But with 1.5 to 2.5 million acres of controlled burns a year, the Sunshine State might be better distinguished as the Flame State.

Here, for many landowners, burning is considered as much a right as life, liberty and happiness. “Some of the best, intuitive, artistic fire professionals I’ve ever met were private landowners who learned the art of fire from their families,” says Zachary Prusak, the Florida fire manager for The Nature Conservancy.

Prusak, who grew up in Daytona Beach smelling smoke from controlled burns, has worked with prescribed fire for 33 years. He’s had plenty of time to reflect on what sets Florida apart, fire-wise. The biggest difference, he suspects, is that state residents simply never stopped burning. The Seminole Tribe has been burning uninterrupted for centuries. Cattle families, some of which have ranched the same land for five generations, are vocal proponents of fire, which regenerates grass for grazing.

Florida’s love affair with fire translates at the legislative level as well. The Great Fire of 1910, and the policies that came after, were blips on the radar. Following severe wildfires in 1998, the state amended its laws to make prescribed fire easier, not harder. Now, people can’t be held liable for damages or injuries from a controlled burn unless proven “grossly negligent.” In addition, a culture of collaboration — a necessity, given Florida’s densely packed population — makes it easier to work across agencies, and across public and private lands.

Of course, nothing is perfect. Even with the statewide enthusiasm for firelighting, Florida’s landscapes are still hungry for more. Sandhill habitats and longleaf pine forests need to be sated with fire every two to three years, or run the risk of withering away. “To use an Alice in Wonderland metaphor, we are the Red Queen. We’re trying to run as fast as we can just to stay in the same place,” Prusak says. “We need to do more.”

Back to the Burn

The aftermath of a “good” fire: burned underbrush, unscathed trees. Photo Credit: U.S. Fish & Wildlife Service.

Florida is one of fire’s biggest fans, but it isn’t alone. Many other states, tribes and private entities have progressive mindsets and policies when it comes to controlled burning. New Jersey, for example, passed legislation in 2019 making it easier for private landowners to burn. The state’s Forest Fire Service boasts dedicated fire wardens, who manage both fire suppression and prescribed burns. “I don’t even see that in most western states, let alone most eastern states,” says Zipse, of the N.J. Forest Service. “That’s kind of a luxury.”

Ironically, the places that would most benefit from firelighting have historically been the most averse to it. Across the West, communities and regulators have long balked at controlled burns, and for understandable reasons. Smoke is a nuisance, and downright dangerous to people with lung conditions such as asthma. There’s always the risk, though remote, that a burn could spin out of control and hurt people or structures.

Attitudes can change, though, and fast. In Shaver Lake, John Mount overcame any initial resistance with good old public outreach. “That meant going to coffee shops every morning,” he says. “I would stop off and have a beer in the after- noon. I went to every Lion’s Club meeting, every Women’s Club meeting. They very quickly understood that having to put up with a little smoke … that I was really protecting their homes.”

In the wake of the 2020 wildfires, more communities are clamoring for prescribed fire and other fuel reduction work. Culture is less of a barrier now than scale: Western wildlands are vast, and massive slices are federally owned. Forty percent of land in Colorado is federal. That number jumps to 50% in California and Oregon, and 60% in Idaho.

For forests that depend on regular fire to stay healthy, this isn’t great news. The U.S. Forest Service and other federal land agencies are chronically understaffed and underfunded, and tend to be more risk-averse and less nimble when it comes to prescribed fire. Even as the merits of “good” fire have come into laser focus, the use of prescribed fire on western lands flatlined — and in some cases decreased — over the last decade. Perhaps not surprisingly, the only national agency that has significantly increased prescribed fire is the Bureau of Indian Affairs.

Money and manpower are major hurdles. In California, for example, a whopping 20 million acres need to burn before forests and other habitats stabilize. Prescribed fire alone costs around $200 an acre — but because so many forests in California are too overgrown to burn without raging out of control, they first need to be thinned of excess brush and trees, to the tune of roughly $1,500 an acre. Environmental permits can cost as much as the on-the-ground work itself. “You’re looking at a price tag of potentially billions of dollars,” Dyer says.

Those pricey permits don’t necessarily translate to action. In Oregon, 1.3 million acres of federal land are permitted for prescribed fire, but are languishing without funds or foresters to do the work. Burn crews can be vanishingly scarce, and the complexity of coordinating with a mishmash of local, state and national agencies means that these crews are often unavailable during the narrow, unpredictable weather windows when it’s safe to burn.

Still, some promising changes are on the horizon. “A fire season like this kind of coalesces our attention,” says Courtney Schultz, a wildfire policy expert at the University of Colorado. “I do think there’s some good momentum around prescribed fire.” She cited the National Prescribed Fire Act of 2020, which would provide $300 million a year for federal agencies to set prescribed fires, $10 million for burns in areas at high risk of severe wildfire, and a cash incentive to any local or state government conducting burns bigger than 100,000 acres.

More money is on the way. In 2018, American Forests helped to pass the “Fire Funding Fix,” which secured stable funding for wildfire fighting, without cannibalizing money from other federal programs that benefit forests. In August, California announced it will begin using fire and other fuel-reduction methods on 1 million acres of land each year by 2025.

At the same time, a recent cultural shift towards “shared stewardship” is enhancing collaboration between federal and state agencies, nonprofits, tribes and other groups. This enables identifying the most at-risk forests on a landscape scale, rather than ownership-by-ownership, and using science to prioritize where to send money, expertise and manpower. American Forests is supporting this shift by convening meetings, providing research and advancing policies that align with shared stewardship.

Our forests are going to burn, one way or another. The climate crisis is fueling early springs, deep droughts and withering temperatures, guaranteeing ever-bigger, hotter wildfires. If we want to stave off devastating flames — which decimate forests, watersheds, homes and wildlife — we have to cut carbon emissions in half in the next decade, all while taking sweeping action to restore forest health. Firelighting alone won’t solve our forest woes, but it’s a big part of the solution. “We have to make friends with fire,” Dyer says. “Without it, the whole system will collapse.”

Allison Guy is American Forests’ senior manager of communications for American ReLeaf program.