ST. GEORGE — There are far fewer wildfires in Utah and other Western U.S. states nowadays than there once were, and that might not be a good thing, according to a new study.
The study, which was released Oct. 23 by researchers from Utah State University, puts the blame on public misconceptions and news reports for leaving out historical context when describing the “unprecedented” number of wildfires today. While the number of wildfires in the U.S. has increased since the 1980s, there are significantly fewer wildfires today than before settlers arrived, thanks to advances in firefighting.
“News media frequently report on dramatic increases in wildfire in the western U.S., with many headlines claiming wildfire area has reached unprecedented or record levels,” the authors contend in the study.
Earlier this year, Gov. Gary Herbert called the 2018 wildfire season “the worst fire season we’ve probably had in memory” after 875 wildfires kept Utah firefighters busy this past summer. The Utah State University study called notions that we’re experiencing record-breaking wildfires “a fallacy.”
Before settlers arrived in the American West, wildfires torched an estimated 4-12 percent of the landscape each year, according to the study. Today, that number is much smaller; however, the study acknowledged that wildfires have increased recently due to land management policies and climate change.
Wildfires could burn through forests without much intervention before settlers arrived, which the authors of the study argued is sometimes more healthy for the environment.
Why wildfires can be healthy for a forest
There are several reasons why wildfires are essential to healthy, thriving forests, said Brian Van Winkle, a fire ecologist for the Dixie and Fishlake national forests in Southern Utah.
The population of trees in forests is often four to six times greater when there are not regular wildfires to control the population, Van Winkle told St. George News – especially in ponderosa pine forests like those in the mountains of Southern Utah, where more trees produce more needles that smother understory plants like grasses and wildflowers.
“Now, when that area burns, we tend to get those super destructive crown fires,” he said.
The low number of wildfires also affects parts of the forest that humans can’t see. Some types of bacteria that are essential to keep nitrogen in the soil can only be spread through smoke, Van Winkle said. These bacteria are important because plants need nitrogen to survive.
These nitrogen-fixing bacteria actually survive in a wildfire and get lifted up in the smoke before getting redeposited in the soil in other places. The only way to move these bacteria from one mountain range to another is through these smoke drifts.
Smoke also sparks germination of hundreds of different kinds of plant species. Without wildfires and the “chemistry of the actual smoke that gets into the pores of the soil,” Van Winkle said these plants hardly ever sprout.
Fighting the lack of wildfires with fire
One of the biggest ways ecologists and fire managers help forests thrive is through prescribed burns where officials burn an area of the forest while controlling the spread so it doesn’t get out of control.
In one of the latest prescribed burns in Southern Utah, the U.S. Forest Service managed a burn of 68 acres in Dixie National Forest near Duck Creek Village on Nov. 1. Their goal was reduce the amount of burnable fuel on the forest floor from 50-60 tons per acre to 5-10 tons.
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“In the absence of fire, it changes the composition of the vegetation in a forest,” Van Winkle said. “So by reintroducing fire, we’re trying to shift the vegetation composition back to being more resistant and resilient forest so it’s not overly balanced on one or two species and it’s a little more diverse.”
Another important reason prescribed burns are conducted is to reduce the burnable fuel in a forest so a more devastating wildfire that can threaten human structures is less of a risk, he said. Prescribed burns make a forest more resistant to wildfires that can be difficult to control, like 2017’s Brian Head Fire that destroyed more than 71,000 acres of forestland.
Because human intervention with wildfires has changed forests, the study from Utah State University makes the point that it’s up to humans to take the necessary steps to educate one another on the history and benefits of wildfires on a forest.
“Understanding the historical magnitudes and accepting the future potential of wildfire in this landscape is pivotal if we hope to change human behaviors, ensure the implementation of realistic solutions, and find a way to coexist with fire,” the researchers say in the study.
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