National Geographic : 2008 Jul
In 2006, wildfires burned 15,000 square miles across the country, a record nearly matched last year. Two-thirds ofthe burned acreage was in the West. One obvious cause is a decade of drought and warmer temperatures. Mountain snow melts earlier, and winter storms arrive later, extending the fire season in some regions by several weeks. Vast tracts of drought-weakened forest have succumbed to insects and disease, turning trees to tinder. In response, we have bolstered our fighter ranks, padded them with private con tractors, provided them more hoses and axes and trucks. Annual federal spending on fire fighting has leaped from $1 billion when the recent drought began in 1998 to more than $3 billion last year, with even greater costs forecast for the future. But the drought is only one part of the burn equation. "The more money we spend, the worse it gets," one fire scientist told me last summer. "If that's not a condemnation of our fire policies, I don't know what is." Historically, the American approach to wildfire has been to try to suppress it whenever and wher ever it appears. This strategy is often traced to the great fires of 1910. That year, massive blazes across the West burned millions of acres and killed dozens of firefighters. Smoke drifted as far as New England, along with tales of tragedy and devastation. Gifford Pinchot, first director of the nascent U.S. Forest Service, was convinced that fire threatened the economic well-being of "GOOD" FIRES are ecologically crucial, clearing out dead brush and returning nutrients to the soil. Most of these ponderosa pines will survive, even thrive, after a low-intensity burn in South Dakota's Custer State Park. "Trees respond to fire," says Frank Carroll of the Forest Service, "like roses respond to pruning and fertilizer."