There is at least one entity to blame for the forest fires ravaging through California wine country, and it is not the most obvious: the government. In 1910, deadly wildfires raged through Washington, Idaho, and Montana, costing the states 3 million acres of woodland territory. Conservationists demanded fire suppression, and total. The United States Forest Service responded with the 10 a.m. policy, under which all forest fires had to be put out by 10 a.m. the day after they started. So began the government’s dangerous attempts to control nature, and they would not end for six decades until 1978, when the damage was already irreversible.
The federal government always seems to believe that it can create policies to fix every societal wrong, and the forests of this country are, unfortunately, no exception. The 60-year effort to eliminate forest fires has ironically done just the opposite; it has made them worse. A forest needs to burn periodically to clear out the undergrowth, thereby getting rid of dead foliage and allowing mature trees to survive. Small fires pose no danger to a forest; quite the opposite, as small, periodic fires are necessary for the health of the forest.
By committing to extinguish all fires as soon as possible, the government is interrupting a natural process. The plants that should have burned in a small fire are no longer allowed to under government regulations. When a large forest fire begins that fire departments are unable to control, these plants that were left behind contribute to the size of the fire. The forest has become denser, and as a result, the fire spreads faster and burns hotter. In a study from 2012 by the Congressional Research Service, scientists found that there is now excess biomass in the forests due to decades of misguided fire suppression policies.
In the 1960s, the government started to doubt the usefulness of such policies as the 10 a.m. rule, after giant sequoia trees stopped growing in the state of California. Giant sequoia trees need fire to survive and grow, a process the government was stifling with its suppression-at-all-costs policies. The policy was abandoned in 1978 in favor of new prescribed burn policies. Under these new regulations, fire control authorities will set small, deliberate fires to clear out dead plants from the floors of forests, mimicking the process by which forests clear themselves out. This is done to make sure that future fires don’t get out of control. However noble the new policy is, it is still badly misguided. Two wrong government programs do not make a right.
Prescribed burns are built on the concept that the government knows exactly what to do with a fire in every situation. However, authorities cannot control which way the wind blows, the temperature variability, or how the fire spreads, and prescribed fires can easily grow out of control. Just ask Tom Scanlan, a Colorado resident who saw his house burned down in 2015 after the government set fire to a forest near the Platte River. After temperatures and wind speeds rose beyond what the government expected, the controlled fire quickly got away from the authorities. 23 homes were destroyed. 3 people were killed. Incidents like these are unfortunately not uncommon, and have occurred in California, Montana, and New Mexico over the past few years. Lack of accountability and the large margin for error are starting to cast doubts on the government’s prescribed burn policies. Ironically, it is the government’s earlier 10 a.m. policy that has made prescribed burns so dangerous; the earlier policy made forests much denser than they could have been naturally, and fires have grown more uncontrollable due to this increased density.
Following six decades of poor fire management policy that irreversibly interfered with nature, government decided that a new, equally dangerous policy was necessary in order to fix the last one. The new policy is also failing, in part due to the mismanagement of the 10 a.m. policy and in part because no matter how hard it tries, bureaucrats cannot control how nature will act. There is little that can be done to reverse 60 years of damage, but new government regulations will only do more harm. Instead, the government should strongly consider abandoning the idea of prescribed burns and allow nature to fix itself. If a fire begins to threaten an urban area, fire management authorities should absolutely step in. Otherwise, let the fire run its course. The forests will grow back to health, and large fires will eventually decline in size as forests become less dense. The answer to failed government policies is not more policies; it is recognizing that not every problem has an administrative solution. Leaving the forests to take care of themselves will pay off in the long run as nature fixes itself. The forests and the citizens of this country will be healthier, safer, and much better off.
Jenny Grimberg is a graduate student in applied economics at Georgetown University. Prior to attending Georgetown, she worked in the financial industry in New York.
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