Fighting Fire with Fire

Having recently spent time out West, in a region stricken by drought and fire, I was reminded of my conflicted relationship with Smokey Bear. That’s right, you read correctly — not “Smokey the Bear.” As a child growing up in in the 1970s in Washington, DC I would regularly visit Smokey at the National Zoo after he’d been rescued from a wildfire in New Mexico. Smokey received so much fan mail the Postal Service gave him his own zip code. His message, “Only you can prevent forest fires,” was seared into our collective consciousness.

Pine Cone

A pine cone release its seeds following a fire in the Pine Barrens © The Nature Conservancy

It was, and still is, an important message – don’t be careless with fire. Protecting lives and property is a priority. But we went too far. We forgot that many of our natural habitats depend on fire for their health and survival. Fire is needed to open the cones of the majestic Ponderosa pines so they can reproduce. Fire allows new grasses to emerge where our prairies have become decadent, and in many places fire helps keep non-native species from invading.

A century of fire suppression has caused many forests to become unhealthy and contain too much natural fuel, like logs, accumulated leaf litter and other natural materials that burn too hot or too long when ignited.

We need more fire to fight fire. Putting controlled fires back into fire-dependent ecosystems can keep natural fuels from accumulating to dangerous levels, allow fire-dependent species like Ponderosa pines to thrive, and help prevent catastrophic fires. When conditions are right we can prescribe fire by lighting it ourselves or allow naturally ignited fires caused by lightning to burn while taking appropriate steps to contain it.

Across the country many cities depend on fire-dependent forests for their drinking water. For example, here in New York City we are close to the pine barrens of Long Island and New Jersey, where the fire-dependent pine forests capture water for millions of people. There are plant and animal species in nearly every part of the country that depend on fire for their survival. And yes, humans count as an animal species, including urban dwellers, that depend upon it too.

The good news is Smokey has changed his tune. He now is spreading the news about the role of fire in fire-dependent ecosystems. As I write this column 54 wildfires are burning across the West. My hope is that as we better appreciate the importance of fire we will use it as a tool to prevent the big blow up fires like many of those raging today. This would allow us to keep our natural areas healthy, our drinking water clean, our property safe and our families and friends out of harm’s way. That would be something that both Smokey and I, as an urban conservationist, could be proud of.

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