Why We Haven’t Been Able to Stop Wildfires

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Source: Time

By Justin Worland

Smokey the Bear told forest and National Park visitors for decades that they held the health and safety of the areas they visited in their hands. “Only you can prevent forest fires,” the character says.

But as it turns out, Smokey has been lying to us. Stopping wildfires is simply not that easy, researchers say. And while some forest experts support plans that could substantially reduce the risk of large-scale burns like the one raging in Fort McMurray, the endeavor will cost billions and take decades. And even then risks will still remain.

The rapid increase in the prevalence and intensity of wildfires in recent years follows centuries of growing human influence on forests. During that time period—and especially over the 20th century with the establishment of the U.S. Forest Service—we have responded to wildfires extinguishing them as quickly as possible. But that instinct has allowed brush and trees that would normally die off in the occasional fire to grow unabated in some regions. Over time, that excess brush provides extra fuel for fires. So when fires do strike, and they can’t be controlled, the unencumbered plant growth allows them to burn much more quickly.

“The main self-regulatory mechanism in ecosystems was frequent fires, fires that burned every two to seven years,” says Wally Covington, a forest ecology professor at Northern Arizona University. “Those fires were put out by European settlement.”

Man-made climate change has also created more favorable conditions for wildfires. Fires thrive in warm temperatures that have spiked due to global warming. Conditions like climate change-related drought also increase the likelihood of wildfires. A lack of access to water kills trees and plants and dry conditions transform the brush into a material that ignites easily.

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Categories: The Muslim Times

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