As more and more homes are built in natural areas prone to periodic wildfire, authorities are looking at hard decisions: encourage a healthy forest by allowing fires to burn, or protect neighborhoods by suppressing fires, but allowing fuel to accumulate that could cause even worse fires in future years?
The New York Times Magazine covered the issue in a long article on Sunday, September 22: ("Into the Wildfire," by Paul Tullis). Reports the Times: "Fire has always been a part of the natural ecology — many plant species evolved in direct response to it and couldn't survive without it; when the sap of some pine cones melts, for example, seeds are released. But the reflexive practice of putting out all fires, which has dominated national policy for so many decades, has turned much of the American West into a tinderbox."
And American houses are moving into that tinderbox, the Times reports. "This development creates what fire experts call the wild-land-urban interface, or WUI (pronounced WOO-ee), and from Bozeman, Mont., to Laurel Canyon in California, more and more of us want to live there, with forested views and coyotes for neighbors — but without the fire. About 80,000 wildfires in the United States were designated for suppression each year between 1998 and 2007, and only an average of 327 were allowed to burn. Yet trying to put out all those fires leads inevitably to more intense, more dangerous and more expensive fires later on. The accumulation of dead wood and unburned 'ladder fuels' — what ecologists call lower vegetation that can carry fire to taller trees — turn lower-intensity fires into hotter fires that kill entire stands of trees that otherwise might survive."