Forest Fire Management in Southwestern United States

Wildfires are a naturally occurring phenomena, especially in geographic locations that witness severe summers. The Southwestern United States is a vast swathe of land that has a dry and hot climate for most of the year. Ever since European settlers began to inhabit this region, wildfires have been recorded in this area. Though these fires were documented only since the early twentieth century, their occurrence goes back thousands of years, as deduced from Native American oral cultural traditions. But today, the Southwest region is modernized and its economy is not solely based on farming. Hence, wildfires no longer have catastrophic consequences to the inhabitants of the region, as long as they happen at remote places. But in the last twenty years the intensity, scale and frequency of these fires have increased (This trend is illustrated in the data graphic at the end of this essay). This is a cause of concern for the local ecosystem and its inhabitants, especially those involved in farming and cattle herding. It has also contributed to global temperature and pollution levels, making it a problem to conted with. This essay will endeavor to identify the most effective Fire Management technique that could employed to deal with the problem.

The Aspen Fire of 2004 is one of the biggest wildfires of recent times. This high intensity fire consumed the mountaintop village of Summerhaven and threated to destroy a few others. As Arizona Daily Star artile on this fire notes,

“Aspen Fire ate its way through the mountaintop village of Summerhaven, sounding like a freight train as it entered via Carter Canyon, storming through the dense pine forests. Flames consumed some rustic cabins but left others standing. Along Phoenix Avenue and East Carter Canyon Road, firefighters carrying hoses ran up streets littered by burning debris, only to be held back as intense heat from flames destroyed nearby homes, the firefighters’ frustration showing behind their goggles and bandannas.” ( Sanders, 2004)

This example captures the kind of challenges such wildfires pose to the inhabitants, fire-fighters, the ecosystem, local government authorities, etc. Similar challenges were faced during the Rodeo-Chediski (White Mountains) Fire the Bullock (Catalina Mountains) Fire of year 2002 and Los Alamos fire of year 2000. Using scientific techniques, a discernible shift upwards in the intensity and sweep of wildfires have been noted in the American Southwest over the course of the last century. By studying the wounds and scar marks on trees that survived past fires, scientists are able to identify this shift in the nature and magnitude of wildfires. And it is now learnt that past fires were generally of low-intensity and the damage they induced to local ecosystems was not everlasting. In contrast, the fires of recent years tend to burn-up all vegetation, leading to a thin chance of recovery for the lost eco-diversity.

Of the few fire management options available to forest management authorities, the best one seems to be to thin the forests in a systematic way, so as to control the damage when wildfires inevitably happen. What has come to be called ‘prescribed fire’ is the deliberate burning of select areas of wilderness, so that the destruction caused by naturally occuring fires would be limited. As noted environmentalist and scholar Stephen W. Barrett has observed in several articles, the controlled burning of wilderness areas under the supervision of forest management officials is yet the best option. As he says, the goal of prescribed fires is not as a substitute for lightning-induced fires, but to confine them to wilderness zones only. Barrett’s assessment is concurred by research team of Weise, et. al. too.

Forest Management officials in the American West are using this option more frequently these days; and administrators in Southwest region can also follow suit. This would ensure the wildfire’s “inevitable return to drainages where fire exclusion has promoted unnatural fuels.” (Barrett, 1999) While some point out that setting fires in wilderness areas is ‘highly impactive’ and hence the practice should be abandoned, it should be remembered that “returning fires to a fire-dependent ecosystem simply cannot be compared to such highly artificial interventions as liming lakes to offset acid rain”. (Barrett, 1999) Going back into Southwest’s history, we learn that Native Indian populations “ignited fires in many ecosystems whenever it suited their needs.” (Barrett, 1999) This suggests that communities that depended of fires did not hesitate to pro-actively cause fires.

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