The U.S. is going through its deadliest and most destructive fire season in history, and scientists say the risk of catastrophic wildfires is increasing. A century of badly informed forest management decisions in the Western states is partly to blame for the escalating number of intense fires, but the U.S. Forest Service says it’s struggling to implement the one measure that can make up for past mistakes: controlled forest burning.
Dry forests in the American West rely on regular fires to clear up dead wood and regenerate, in some places as often as every three to seven years. Native Americans knew this, and there’s evidence they set fires across the country to manage the landscape. But a century ago, the U.S. Forest Service came in and cut this cycle short.
In the early 1900s, the Forest Service launched an expensive (and successful) campaign to eradicate fire, which went on for decades and got Smokey the Bear as its mascot around 1944. But massive-scale fire suppression made dead wood, brush, and fuels build up over time, so these days when fires ignite they burn hotter and faster, and are more destructive and much harder to fight. Burning the forest under controlled conditions to remove fuels is the one simple, scientifically proven solution to this problem.
The Forest Service has known this for decades. But fear of fire runs deep, and the agency has been slow to increase the use of fire, partly because it’s worried about a public backlash. “It wasn’t until the mid 2000s that we started entertaining the idea of increasing our prescribed burn program,” William Basye, regional fuel specialist at the U.S. Forest Service, told VICE News.
VICE News Tonight visited a controlled burn in Payson, Arizona, to explore how fighting fire with fire can help prevent catastrophic wildfires in the future.
This segment originally aired December 11, 2017, on VICE News Tonight on HBO.