National Geographic : 2008 Jul
Like Barrett, Bone loves his job. And he shares with many others the belief that trying to fight all fires is a loser's game. Bone favors an alternative strategy called "wildland fire use," in which some wildfires are monitored but allowed to burn, gradually thinning the forests and clearing out fuel. It is not a new approach. Native Americans burned forests and grasslands to create game habitat and clear fields. Many plant species ben efit from a periodic purging. Bone stabs a finger toward the forest, heavy with ponderosa pine. With their thick, tough bark, the trees can sur vive all but the most severe burns. Other pines require fire for reproduction; their seed cones are coated in a waxy resin that must be melted off by heat to free the seeds. As fire burns dead wood and live plants, it also releases nutrients into the soil. This is crucial in arid zones, where decomposition without fire would take decades. Not all fires can be left to run their course, but the ecological argument behind the idea is compelling. "That's the future, man" Bone says. "We need to learn to let things burn. Lucky is one star in a constellation of fire. As it burns, other fires follow lightning storms through Idaho into Montana. Some flicker and die. Others are born where the wind is right and the ground good and dry. On satellite maps the West appears cancerous, red patches spreading.