Opinion | To Help Prevent the Next Big Wildfire, Let the Forest Burn

By Ash Ngu and Sahil Chinoy

The photograph below shows the Yosemite Valley in 1899 on the left, with open meadows and a patchwork of large conifers.

On the right is the same view in 2011. The valley floor has many more trees.

Which forest do you think is healthier?

If you picked the sparser forest from 1899, you’re on the right track.

Much of California’s forestland is overgrown, partly because of federal regulations implemented in 1910, which mandated stamping out wildfires as soon as possible. These policies were revised around the 1970s to allow some fires to naturally burn their course, but much of the West has struggled to do so.

At the height of the most recent blazes, President Trump tweeted that there was “no reason” for the fires besides “gross mismanagement” by the state. Critics took issue with the timing and simplistic logic of the statement, but the comment drew attention to the way forest management affects the frequency and intensity of wildfires. Ecologists and forest experts attribute California’s destructive wildfires to decades of aggressive fire suppression, in addition to the increased population of fire-prone areas and hotter, drier conditions due to climate change.

The solution needs to address all these things, but one critical step is shifting our understanding of fire’s role in forest ecology. Policymakers and citizens alike must abandon the idea that trees are always worth saving and that fire is always a threat. Instead, they should permit modest, ecologically necessary wildfires to burn.

“For a long time, we were mistaken about what was going on in the forest,” said Malcolm North, an ecologist with the U.S. Forest Service. “People believed that you needed to put fires out because it was burning the forest up. That has proven to be wrong.”

California is now collecting itself at the tail end of its most destructive and deadliest wildfire season on record. But recovery is not just about donating to relief efforts and rebuilding burned homes. It’s also about creating a new culture for forest and fire management in the state, one that respects the role that carefully planned fires play in preventing disasters.

In May, Gov. Jerry Brown took a step towards this future, dedicating $96 million to reducing wildfire risk in the state. He directed state offices to double the number of acres being managed with prescribed burns and vegetation thinning to 500,000 acres from 250,000 acres, among other directives like educating landowners about effective forest management.

“If California can begin to change, that will be a huge example for the rest of the country, certainly throughout the West,” Dr. Pyne said.