The fledging Forest Service established in 1905 found a mission for itself after the 1910 Burn charred more than 3.5 million acres across Idaho and Montana. Shocked by the size and severity of this fire, the Forest Service used the 1910 Burn to create a niche for itself — it was the firefighting agency.
By the 1930s, the Forest Service adopted it’s 10 a.m. rule, which the agency used to motivate its firefighters to extinguish all fires by 10 a.m., the day following the discovery of a blaze. Fortunate for the agency, just as it enacted this policy, the climate across the West changed from dry, warm to cool and wet.
Between the late 1930s all the way through the 1980s, the climate was considerably cooler and wetter than today. Suddenly, the Forest Service was very successful at putting out fires. This was the period of so-called “successful” fire suppression.
However, the agency may have been taking credit for putting out fires that destined to self-extinguish because the climate or weather wasn’t conducive for fires to grow and spread.
The one piece of evidence we have that weather may have been far more important than our ineffective fire suppression policies is from Yellowstone. Between 1972 and 1987, the Park Service had a policy of allowing 235 backcountry wildfires to burn without suppression. During that time, 208 of the fires went out without burning more than 1 acre. I repeat: Most of the fires did not burn more than an acre. Only one fire grew larger than 1000 acres. And all of these fires self-extinguished without any suppression.
This raises the question of whether the Forest Service’s firefighting was actually all that effective and whether the so-called “fuel buildup” presumed to be the result of fire suppression might actually be a natural consequence of the climate.
However, something happened in the 1980s. The climate shifted to drier and warmer, in some cases, the most severe droughts in the last 1,000 years were recorded in various parts of the West. Suddenly the Forest Service could no longer put out all fires, particularly those burning under severe fire weather.
In other words, when the weather was less than extreme, the Forest Service was permitted to extinguish the fires by the climate/weather. But when Mother Nature decided to throw out some extreme weather, even the most modern firefighting information, equipment and dedication of firefighters could not quench the blazes.
But the agency doesn’t acknowledge the shift in climate/weather, rather it wants to blame fire suppression for the large fires. This despite abundant and growing evidence that climate/weather controls wildfires not fuel.
What science is increasingly demonstrating is that some fires are unstoppable. Forest reduction projects which may work under less than extreme fire weather conditions fail when they encounter a blaze driven by climate/weather.
A review of past paleo-climate and its influence upon wildfire would suggest that what we are observing today is exactly we would expect under the different climate regimes that have influenced western landscapes for the past century or more.
The idea that large fires are “catastrophic” is ecologically uninformed. Our forest ecosystems depend on occasional large blazes to create snags and down wood which are critical for healthy forest ecosystems.
George Wuerthner is an ecologist and has published 38 books including "Wildfire: A Century of Failed Forest Policy." He divides his time between Livingston, Montana and Bend, Oregon.