By Nicky Ouellet
As fire season winds down, managers are intentionally setting fire to brush piles, slash and even large sections of forests in an effort to prevent out of control wildfires in future seasons. A group of scientists from Montana and Idaho recently published a paper arguing that strategies like these should be part of a radical rethinking of how people in the West live with fire.
Dave McWethy says Montana has passed a tipping point. Summers are hotter and drier, which means fire season lasts longer. Our approach to put every single fire out, like we’ve done for the past 100 years, just isn’t realistic anymore.
“The big take home message is that we can’t respond the way we have in the past to wildfire,” McWethy said.
McWethy is an assistant professor of earth sciences at Montana State University. In a recent article in Nature Sustainability, McWethy and his coauthors argue that people living in the West need to reconsider how we live with, and even harness, fire if we want to continue living here in the future.
“We have to make changes. And one of the great things we have to do that, is how we used to use fire as a tool in the past,” McWethy said.
McWethy’s team found a model in the Netherlands, where instead of fighting rising sea levels with taller and taller dams, engineers built an infrastructure system designed to work with water instead of fight it.
“And instead of rebuilding in the same way that they have in the past, they’ve decided to transform how they accept or live with these hazards… It’s coming back to this idea that fire is part of Western landscapes, it was in the past it is today and it’s going to be in the future. And I think becoming comfortable with the fact that with warming temps and a longer fire season, the best way we can move into the future is accept fire as a natural process, and start to think about how we could use fire itself to safeguard our communities,” McWethy said.
As three major fires blaze in California, we consider some of their causes, both human and meteorological. Science correspondent Miles O’Brien has been filming a NOVA documentary on megafires and witnessed the Camp Fire not long after it began. He joins William Brangham to describe that stunning experience, along with the broader scientific context around these destructive phenomena.