‘Fire is important. Fire is necessary.’

Periodic wildfire plays an integral role in forest health

Strike crew leader John Henry, from Lassen National Forest, discusses the necessity of fire for forest ecology while standing in Weber Canyon on Thursday, June 28. Enlargephoto

Journal/Sam Green

Strike crew leader John Henry, from Lassen National Forest, discusses the necessity of fire for forest ecology while standing in Weber Canyon on Thursday, June 28.

“Fire is part of the ecosystem.”

Looking at the burned hillsides of Weber Canyon on Thursday, June 28, strike team leader John Henry reiterated the sentiment.

“Fire is important. Fire is necessary.”

As wildfires continue to rage in the United States, many with devastating consequences, researchers, forest managers and firefighters are offering reminders that fire, in its natural state and environment, is an important part of forest ecology, and continued suppression efforts only serve to strengthen blazes that encroach on the wildland-urban interface.

“We have seen a management evolution away from fire and have become very good at suppressing fire in the forest,” said Henry, a firefighter from the Lassen National Forest in California. “That is why we are getting these catastrophic fires, like in Colorado Springs. We are undermining what the environment needs.”

Fire has long played a role in forest management and the culture of those who live on the land.

Tree Escalanti, crew boss for a fire squad out of the Fort Yuma Indian Reservation in California assigned to the Weber Fire, said Native Americans have recognized, and revered, the role of fire in the ecosystem for centuries. Escalanti is Mescalero Apache.

“To us, fire is our strength,” Escalanti said, resting for a moment in a burnt stand of piñon and juniper in Weber Canyon on Thursday, June 28. “Our way is to believe that fire is part of who you are and who we are as a people.”

Firefighters on the Fort Yuma Reservation are required to attend classes taught by tribal elders on the historic role of fire in cleaning, renewing and restoring the environment.

“They used fire, and allowed fire, to clean things and make things new,” Escalanti said. “We talk about a fire in a canyon that the tribe could not stop, no matter what they did. The fire raged through the canyon, but when it reached the end of the canyon, it died. It had done what was needed, so it stopped. That area needed to be cleaned, so it cleaned itself. Fire is powerful.”

In past years, however, fire has been viewed as a power to harness and a force that must submit to the technology and machinery utilized by societies intent on extinguishing flames in the forest.

A reduction in thinning operations and prescribed burns has left forests choked with fuel, ready to ignite at the slighted provocation.

Monique Rocca, an associate professor of wildland fire science at Colorado State University, says a lack of fire on the landscape has led to untenable situations in terms of wildfire potential and multiple management strategies are to blame.

“We have seen fire exclusion, not allowing the forest to burn, over the last century,” Rocca said, in a phone interview on Friday, June 29. “There has also been a reduction of grazing and a changing in logging policies, and all those have resulted in a more dense forest. If fire is allowed to burn the forest naturally, often it does not burn hot enough to kill the trees. However, when the understory becomes so thick and creates ladder fuels that allow fire to reach the trees, you lose trees and you get severe fires, like what we are seeing across the nation.”

The U.S. Forest Service is working to alter forest management to include more prescribed burning and thinning, in an effort to cut back on the number of massive wildfires that sweep across the forest.

Restoration efforts are planned for next year for nearly 4 million acres of forest in Arizona, New Mexico, Oregon, South Dakota and Colorado, many focused on trees killed by beetle infestations, according to The Associated Press. Forest officials believe such efforts will reduce the cost of fire suppression in such areas by up to 50 percent.

Forest Service Chief Tom Tidwell told The Associated Press that forests must be restored to a natural state, one in which fire is part of the landscape and can be managed, not suppressed. In that situation, natural fires will allow the forest to clean itself, renewing the cycle and process that used to be seen in wild places. Such fires, public lands managers hope, will prevent the severe blazes that lead to soil sterilization, seed destruction and severe erosion.

However, forest officials caution that fire will always be present in the forest.

“Everybody has to keep in mind that fire will play a huge significant role in our landscape for the rest of time,” Southwestern Regional Forester Corbin Newman told The Associated Press. “Sometimes people think through either restoration or suppression we can just make fires go away. We have to remind folks we’re just trying (to) put fire back into its natural processes and cycles as opposed to what we’re seeing in today’s world.”

In regard to the local fire, Henry said the Weber blaze was a best-case scenario.

“We’ve saved the homes and structures and yet the landscape has been allowed to purge itself,” he said. “It will come back and it will be healthier than it was before. It may be hard to understand, but this is good. Fire is good.”

Reach Kimberly Benedict at kimberlyb@cortezjournal.com.