The History of Fire in the United States

How the fires of the past created the Wildfire epidemic of today

Wildfires in the U.S. are increasing, fueled by a lethal combination of history, perspective, and climate change. These huge blazes were once an integral part of the American ecosystem, but have spiraled out of control due to human activity.

Burning landscapes increase ecological diversity, nutrient and renewal cycles, and can help eliminate pesky beetles, as well as botanical diseases that take on a crippling role when unchecked.

Unfortunately, fire ecology did not play an integral part in the suppression equation that ruled the preservation of wildlands and national parks from the late 1800s until the 1960s. Pre-tree-hugging-era policies included a zero tolerance of fires, wild or not. The primary task of the U.S. Forest Service and National Park Service from their conception was to protect these places, and the pleasurable or economic resources they contained. The issue was later met with in a policy in 1935 that all fires had to be extinguished by 10 a.m. of the following burn period. Later, the 1944 Smokey the Bear campaign pushed anti-fire propaganda to its pinnacle, while in reality a majority of fires occurring at this time were naturally started, and may have been just what Mother Nature ordered.

Attempting to withhold the natural burn cycle has created a build-up of undergrowth and ready to burn fuel that instigates fires of extreme and unmanageable proportions.

Though many cannon conservationists noted the importance of fire through the early 20th century, the 1963 Leopold Report has been credited many times for its observations, conclusions,and legacy of managing ecosystems as a whole by integrating fire and rebuilding natural ecological succession. The winds changed, and the scientific study of fire ecology was adopted into management and preservation practices — but ecological and cultural damage had already been done.            

Consider the celebrity fire of Yellowstone in 1988. A “Let it burn” policy had been put in place in 1972 for lightning-induced fires. Allowing small and naturally occurring fires allowed the landscape to regenerate and maintain itself. The 1988 fire was an example of perfect wildfire conditions: dry and windy weather. The massive blaze took out about 1.2 million acres of area, and generated a public outcry that the park service was failing to do their job, to preserve this iconic and pristine wonderland.” Now, thirty years later, dynamic ecosystems have emerged and are making a full recovery while scientific study follows the growth as a “living laboratory”.           

The notion of preserving pristine and untouched landscapes acted as a catalyst for creating places where the American populous could go to be in nature. This concept of an unblemished and free landscape was rooted in the American ideology of preservation and enjoyment. But these landscapes considered pristine were in fact not as untouched as they were idolized.  

Many forest and grasslands were modified through human impact and use of fire by the First Nation and Indigenous peoples. The pre-colonial landscape was intimately modified, controlled, and designed by use of fire with Traditional Indigenous knowledge. These controlled fires defined the ecological diversity and landscapes that white colonialists encountered, and later inspired the idea of pristine nature to be protected.

From this perspective, American ecosystems and landscapes have been meddled with and modified for a long time, whether economically, culturally or ecologically. Humans have continuously attempted to recreate balance, as we define it, see it, and wish to fit our needs and wants. 

Even in seeking to connect with nature, we encroach. We continue to build in places not suited to be a human habitat without regard for hazardous natural occurrences. Sometimes these choices are made out of preference, and sometimes out of need.            

The final thread weaving into over a century of contention, is the element of rising temperatures, increasing extreme weather, and a longer burning season — all products of anthropomorphic change of the climate that will continue to dry out pre-existing fuel build up, and further intensify fires. These wildfires also release carbon dioxide into the atmosphere, which increases climate change in a vicious cycle.           

So what do we do now?           

We don’t just go rake the forest floor as some believe.

We make choices. We vote for government officials that are passionate about fighting global warming. We work to build resilientcommunities and strategic planning to deal with the issues that will arise from the changing landscape. We listen and initiate a collaborative effort of traditional and western knowledge to move away from the mindset of eradication, and towards the use of prescribed fire for a sustainable and livable future.

Amy Lyons

Amy Lyons was born in the massive and mostly wild state of Idaho. After a short stint in the DC area, she returned to Idaho to graduate from Boise State University with a Creative Writing degree. Amy has worked in sustainability, believes in equitable clean energy, and is an environmental advocate seeking to protect, observe, and enjoy as much of the planet and her wonders as she can. She once managed a large scale worm composting operation for a time, and is also known as a Worm Wrangler Extraordinaire. If she isn't at her writing desk, growing things in her garden, stuffing her face with delicious food, or playing with her dogs, Amy is lost in the wilderness seeking adventure. She is currently snowed in for the winter and care taking a backcountry lodge in the heart of the Boise National Forest. You can follow her current adventure at thelyonsden.blog

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