To Help Prevent the Next Big Wildfire, Let the Forest Burn

Ash Ngu and Sahil Chinoy  NYTimes Opinion

…Much of California’s forestland is overgrown, partly because of federal regulations implemented in 1910, which mandated stamping out wildfires as soon as possible. These policies were revised around the 1970s to allow some fires to naturally burn their course, but much of the West has struggled to do so.

…Policymakers and citizens alike must abandon the idea that trees are always worth saving and that fire is always a threat. Instead, they should permit modest, ecologically necessary wildfires to burn.

“For a long time, we were mistaken about what was going on in the forest,” said Malcolm North, an ecologist with the U.S. Forest Service. “People believed that you needed to put fires out because it was burning the forest up. That has proven to be wrong.”…

….Decreasing the amount of fuel available to wildfires requires a combination of practices that remove vegetation, like prescribed fires and the selective removal of smaller trees and mulching. Stephen Pyne, an environmental historian who studies fire, emphasized that logging would not keep wildfires at bay. “Logging takes the big trunks and leaves the small stuff because there’s no market for it,” he said. “Fire burns the little and leaves the big.”

Making matters more complicated, more than 11 million Californians live in the wildland-urban interface, fire-prone transition zones between unoccupied land and developed areas….

….California is now collecting itself at the tail end of its most destructive and deadliest wildfire season on record. But recovery is not just about donating to relief efforts and rebuilding burned homes. It’s also about creating a new culture for forest and fire management in the state, one that respects the role that carefully planned fires play in preventing disasters.

In May, Gov. Jerry Brown took a step towards this future, dedicating $96 million to reducing wildfire risk in the state. He directed state offices to double the number of acres being managed with prescribed burns and vegetation thinning to 500,000 acres from 250,000 acres, among other directives like educating landowners about effective forest management….