Jul 1, 2002
Experts say the forest fires raging on federal lands in several western states have come much earlier and are more widespread than usual for several reasons. First, the whole area is suffering from a years-long drought.
The other cause is a conscious policy carried out by the U.S. government for almost a century – a policy which has created a large amount of combustible material causing fires to spread rapidly and be difficult to put out when they do catch.
Without human interference, wildfires started primarily by lightning would normally burn through these forests from time to time, reducing both tree and underbrush density. But because of more commercial development in these forests, in 1910 the government adopted a policy of suppressing all fires.
By the 1950s, the Forest Service recognized that this total fire suppression policy was creating a potentially disastrous situation. It recommended controlled burning of selected areas of forest to get rid of the underbrush. But lumber and logging companies and land developers didn’t like even the temporary disruption of their operations that controlled fires caused. And the wealthy people who had put summer homes out in the forests didn’t like the smoke.
Finally, several of the fires started deliberately by the Forest Service got out of control, because of insufficient staffing of the Forest Service. So the total fire suppression policy has remained largely in effect.
The results are the huge fires we see raging today. Capital – which looks often only at the short term maximization of profit – often creates bigger disasters for itself – and us – down the road.