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Many are suffering another disastrous fire season in the West this year. For some, their suffering won’t end when the smoke finally clears. It should not have to be this bad.

The overwhelming size and severity of these wildfires – and the ones that lay incubating in our future – make clear the need to re-examine our wildfire protection strategies; more to the point, they should have us re-evaluating our land management policies and practices in fire-prone forests.

Presently, in the West, wildfire protection is heavily weighted to reacting to an emergency, rather than mitigating the underlying hazards that inevitably set the stage for disaster. Yet, despite rapidly growing firefighting budgets, more sophisticated technologies, stronger cooperation between federal, state and local forces, and the promise of bigger and better tools, the West continues to experience its worst wildfires on record.

The convergence of deepening droughts, extreme weather and the vulnerable condition of fire-prone forests is exceeding all efforts at control until firefighters get a break in fuels or relief in weather. In our dry ponderosa pine forests, particularly, fire protection doesn’t have to be so difficult, so expensive, nor so dangerous. Ironically, these same forests –100 years ago – were among the most benign in terms of potential fire intensity. In the intervening century, changes in forest structure, species composition and fuel loading have dramatically increased their fire severity. Today’s high-consequence wildfires in our native ponderosa pine forests may be the least natural of all the natural disasters that we deal with.

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Our environmental regulations don’t always offer much help. In fact, while proposed hazard reduction projects are required to satisfy a suite of environmental constraints, the wildfire impacts that may result in their absence get a “pass.” They are broadly excused as unavoidable accidents of nature. Managing public lands has long been contentious, but, as we battle to preserve these forests, droughts are intensifying and more biomass is becoming available to burn. The wildfires that are waiting on us threaten to imperil many of the very values we hope to save.

We can reduce wildfire severity in dry forest types by reducing fuel hazards at meaningful scales. The rising costs, losses, damages – and suffering – that result from these wildfires will only be reversed when we confront the land management policies and practices that now encumber a safer, more sensible and more sustainable approach to protecting high-risk fire-prone forests. 

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Jerry Williams of Missoula is a retired national director of Fire and Aviation Management for the U.S. Forest Service.

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