Are there really more wildfires nowadays? New Utah study separates fact from fiction

Wildfire burns a forest floor in California, Aug. 17, 2013 | File photo by WildandFree/iStock/Getty Images Plus, St. George News

ST. GEORGE — There are far fewer wildfires in Utah and other Western U.S. states nowadays than there once were, and that might not be a good thing, according to a new study.

Fire retardant is dropped by aircraft near the west flank of the West Valley Fire that covered parts of Iron and Washington counties, Utah, July 4, 2018 | File photo courtesy of Dixie National Forest, St. George News

The study, which was released Oct. 23 by researchers from Utah State University, puts the blame on public misconceptions and news reports for leaving out historical context when describing the “unprecedented” number of wildfires today. While the number of wildfires in the U.S. has increased since the 1980s, there are significantly fewer wildfires today than before settlers arrived, thanks to advances in firefighting.

“News media frequently report on dramatic increases in wildfire in the western U.S., with many headlines claiming wildfire area has reached unprecedented or record levels,” the authors contend in the study.

Earlier this year, Gov. Gary Herbert called the 2018 wildfire season “the worst fire season we’ve probably had in memory” after 875 wildfires kept Utah firefighters busy this past summer. The Utah State University study called notions that we’re experiencing record-breaking wildfires “a fallacy.”

Before settlers arrived in the American West, wildfires torched an estimated 4-12 percent of the landscape each year, according to the study. Today, that number is much smaller; however, the study acknowledged that wildfires have increased recently due to land management policies and climate change.

Wildfires could burn through forests without much intervention before settlers arrived, which the authors of the study argued is sometimes more healthy for the environment.

Why wildfires can be healthy for a forest

There are several reasons why wildfires are essential to healthy, thriving forests, said Brian Van Winkle, a fire ecologist for the Dixie and Fishlake national forests in Southern Utah.

Two fires spread across Bryce Canyon and into the Dixie National Forest, the Lonely Fire and the Riggs Fire, Bryce Canyon, Utah, Sept. 11, 2018 | Photo courtesy of the U.S. Forest Service, St. George News

The population of trees in forests is often four to six times greater when there are not regular wildfires to control the population, Van Winkle told St. George News – especially in ponderosa pine forests like those in the mountains of Southern Utah, where more trees produce more needles that smother understory plants like grasses and wildflowers.

“Now, when that area burns, we tend to get those super destructive crown fires,” he said.

The low number of wildfires also affects parts of the forest that humans can’t see. Some types of bacteria that are essential to keep nitrogen in the soil can only be spread through smoke, Van Winkle said. These bacteria are important because plants need nitrogen to survive.

These nitrogen-fixing bacteria actually survive in a wildfire and get lifted up in the smoke before getting redeposited in the soil in other places. The only way to move these bacteria from one mountain range to another is through these smoke drifts.

Smoke also sparks germination of hundreds of different kinds of plant species. Without wildfires and the “chemistry of the actual smoke that gets into the pores of the soil,” Van Winkle said these plants hardly ever sprout.

Fighting the lack of wildfires with fire

One of the biggest ways ecologists and fire managers help forests thrive is through prescribed burns where officials burn an area of the forest while controlling the spread so it doesn’t get out of control.

In one of the latest prescribed burns in Southern Utah, the U.S. Forest Service managed a burn of 68 acres in Dixie National Forest near Duck Creek Village on Nov. 1. Their goal was reduce the amount of burnable fuel on the forest floor from 50-60 tons per acre to 5-10 tons.

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“In the absence of fire, it changes the composition of the vegetation in a forest,” Van Winkle said. “So by reintroducing fire, we’re trying to shift the vegetation composition back to being more resistant and resilient forest so it’s not overly balanced on one or two species and it’s a little more diverse.”

Vegetation is charred in the town of Brian Head where a wildfire had started two weeks prior, Iron County, Utah, July 1, 2017 | File photo by Scott Young, St. George News

Another important reason prescribed burns are conducted is to reduce the burnable fuel in a forest so a more devastating wildfire that can threaten human structures is less of a risk, he said. Prescribed burns make a forest more resistant to wildfires that can be difficult to control, like 2017’s Brian Head Fire that destroyed more than 71,000 acres of forestland.

Because human intervention with wildfires has changed forests, the study from Utah State University makes the point that it’s up to humans to take the necessary steps to educate one another on the history and benefits of wildfires on a forest.

“Understanding the historical magnitudes and accepting the future potential of wildfire in this landscape is pivotal if we hope to change human behaviors, ensure the implementation of realistic solutions, and find a way to coexist with fire,” the researchers say in the study.

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Copyright St. George News, LLC, 2018, all rights reserved.

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  • bikeandfish November 7, 2018 at 9:08 am

    Its an interesting study as it’s principle point is we need to prepare the public for periods of greater wildfire activity and plan for the potential of significant lose of water in the West due to an increase in wildfire activity.

    Having read their paper I think their claim about modern dialoug being a “fallacy” is problematic. “Record breaking” claims always require context and the clear cintexr of recent claims is a timeframe since colonizing the West. We simply haven’t experienced this type of fire activity in our history. That is a claim consistent with the discoveries regarding pre-settlement fire activity.

    One other caveat, we have to compare the acreage available to burn before settlement to the remnant lands now. A percentage of available land burned matters. They hint at this by discussing the implications of development but this directly affects the language and content of describing wildfire scale.

  • Lee Saunders November 8, 2018 at 12:34 pm

    Yes, I agree that there are many factors involved when analyzing historical wildfire activity. So many things have changed, including the previous practice of burning by the Native Americans before the arrival of the Europeans. Before the arrival of the pioneers, the landscape was anything but “natural”, due to periodic burning by the natives. Researchers believe they burned for many reasons, including improving grazing for game and their animals, promote their vegetative food sources, kill parasitic insects, fireproofing against wildfires, kill the dwarf mistletoe parasite that colonized the mesquite and oaks and so on.

    One factor contributing to wildfires in the West is the proliferation of non-native invader or explosive vegetation, such as cheat grass and red brome.

    A factor influencing (limiting) the extent of wildfires is the amount of area that is no longer susceptible to wildfire. Urban and agricultural development are two examples. However, urban development is a major contribution to the economic severity of wildfires as the urban/wildland interface is increased.

    The Smoky Bear campaign is now recognized as one of the most ill-advised programs ever promoted by the Forest Service. It allowed the buildup of duff and litter on the forest floor, a major source of wildfire fuel. As the article explained, lack of ground fires can allow low growing vegetation and regeneration to flourish, creating what is called a fuel ladder, allowing fire to reach the crowns of the timber. Prehistorically, in addition to the Indian burning, there were also naturally caused fires (lightning) that burned until they either ran out of fuel or the rains or snows put them out-a natural reduction of fuel load.

    Prescribed burning is an important tool in the foresters’ management tool chest. It is a very precise process, a technical science. The risk is the fire getting out of control. Important measurements, such as fuel loads, fuel moisture content, temperature, wind speeds, topography and so on must be considered. All good intentions will be compromised if the fire becomes a wildfire.

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