This year it made major news. But every summer, wildfires torch thousands of acres of land, and drive hundreds of people from their homes.
In a special half-hour radio documentary, George Lavender and Making Contact will take a closer look at the “War on Fire”, from the forests of California to the halls of Congress. This special radio documentary is nearing completion, please help us to finish it by donating here
We’re warned that we face a future where wildfires are more common, in part as a result of climate change. Yet, some scientists say the Forest Service, which is responsible for vast areas of the American landscape, is failing to heed those warnings.
A step back?
In the past, the Forest Service pursued an aggressive fire suppression policy- putting out all fires as soon as possible. Niel Lawrence of the Natural Resources Defense Council says that policy was adopted “very largely to protect timber resources on private land". The Forest Service, along with other government agencies, changed its strategy, after scientists showed that fire was often a necessary part of an ecosystem, and that suppressing fires just puts off bigger and hotter fires for future. This year, fire ecologists and firefighters are accusing the Forest Service of advocating aggressive initial attacks on all fires, even when it poses no threat to communities. Is the Forest Service going back to its old ways and why?
At the Chips Fire in the Plumas National Forest, California, hundreds of firefighters, with helicopters, bulldozers and a whole support operation were fighting a wildfire which has now burnt tens of thousands of acres. By mid-August the fire had cost $17 million and rising. Is the Forest Service prepared to deal with the rising cost of suppressing fires in a changing climate? And is it putting future firefighters and communities at risk, by suppressing fires now that may burn more dangerously in the future?
Who profits from fire?
A growing private firefighting industry has increasing influence in fire policy in the US and the industry currently gets about 25% of the Forest Service’s fire suppression budget. Should companies be fighting fires at public cost for private profit? And are those companies changing the way we fight fire for the worse?
Before Europeans arrived, indigenous communities used fire to manage the land in California. In the redwood forests just South of San Francisco, fire ecologist Chuck Striplen has been researching fire scars left behind in the trunks of old trees. He’s found that with the arrival of settlers, the regular pattern of fires was stopped. In the Pinnacles National Monument, National Parks employees are working with a local tribe to restore cultural burns to the landscape. Meanwhile other indigenous communities have struggled to regain their rights to carry out burns on their traditional lands.
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