By Stephen Tuttle | Sept. 21, 2019
October 8, 1871, was a very bad day for fires in the United States.
At the end of an unusually hot and dry summer, railroad workers clearing brush outside of Peshtigo, Wisconsin, accidentally set a fire that quickly turned into a wind-aided conflagration.
Known as the Peshtigo Fire, it quickly burned 1.2 million acres of eastern Wisconsin, including parts of the contiguous Upper Peninsula. The death toll was at least 1,500 people, and perhaps as many as 2,500; the small communities that kept records were incinerated in this, the deadliest wildfire in US history.
The same day, much of Wisconsin's Dorr Peninsula burned in what most now believe was a separate fire, and there were also large fires in Holland, Manistee, and Port Huron.
The reason none of this gets much attention is it all happened the same day as the Great Chicago Fire.
Those fires started a gradual shift in the way we dealt with wildfires. Before Peshtigo, most fires were caused either by lightning or people clearing land for agriculture. We essentially let those fires burn, understanding as we then did that fire is a natural part of a forest environment.
Then, in 1910, the so-called Great Fire erupted, burning 3 million acres of Montana and Idaho, killing 89 people and destroying nearly two dozen communities. We stopped letting fires burn.
The new philosophy, complete with a new government department dedicated to wildfires, was to stop every fire within 24 hours of its onset, regardless of how it started.
Protecting property in the ever-expanding West was considered a noble enterprise, but it actually was the beginning of the degradation of our forest lands.
The problem is that fire is a natural process in much of our forests. Several species of pine tree, some eucalyptus, and even some ground plants require the heat of fire to reproduce. It clears the brush, actually replenishes the soil, and encourages new growth.
As this is being written, there are 139 active wildfires in the United States, 69 of which are burning in Alaska. The Alaskan fires, which threaten neither people nor property, are being allowed to burn, but those in the lower 48 are inevitably fought not because they will destroy wildlands but because they threaten the communities and people who have moved into those areas.
The problem, as always, is us. There are now more fires of greater size burning more acreage, endangering more lives, and causing greater financial losses than there were just 50 years ago. The National Interagency Fire Center lists 58,000 fires in 2018 that burned 8.8 million acres, down a bit from 2017. And, according to the Department of the Interior, nearly 90 percent of those fires are caused by humans.
The fires we now cause endanger communities tucked into wildlands so we cannot let them burn. The vegetative clutter most likely to burn, and which used to be cleared in nature-provided ground fires, now accumulates.
Out West, in addition to the ever expanding urban/wildlands interface, the weather extremes of climate change have added another dimension. Record precipitation, followed by dramatic plant growth, followed by record heat that dries the brush, followed by big fires.
The solutions — our president's suggestions to the contrary notwithstanding — do not involve raking. With some 818 million acres of forested lands, that's a pretty big yard to clean up.
It isn't even practical to suggest we clean out all the accumulated brush. We could, however, insist communities adjacent to or within wildlands create a significant firebreak between themselves and at-risk forests. We could tell those people who want to live in the middle of nature that we understand but won't risk lives protecting that property. We could create zoning that requires homes in danger zones to be more fire resistant. We could create wide firebreaks in forested areas, as they do in Finland, to force fire onto the ground, where it can do more good and more easily fought. We could expand the budgets for those who manage public lands so they can undertake additional, carefully prescribed burns.
There is every evidence the burning will continue, as will the rain/heat cycles. Many experts believe the Southeast, with its vast pine forests and expanding metroplexes, is a likely spot for the next tragic fire.
A freshly burned forest is a sad spectacle. But it will come back: little plants emerging first, then critters. And, yes, it might take generations for those forests to fully regenerate, but that's part of the natural process. Even the lands destroyed by Mount St. Helen's were green the following year.
We know stopping every fire is counterproductive to the health of many forests. Everyone seeking answers should look in the mirror. We start the fires, live in areas vulnerable to those fires, underfund agencies created to manage that land, and then wonder why somebody doesn't do something.