Does It Always Make Sense To Extinguish Wildfires?

Fires have been around for a long time, far before humans actually figured out how to go about creating one. However, time and time again, we have found that fire is also an unparalleled aid to humans, yet can be disastrously bad when left unchecked. No discussion regarding the destruction caused by fires can be complete without mentioning wildfires.



Source: Wikipedia

A wildfire (also referred to as wildland fire) is a an uncontrollable fire that usually occurs in the countryside or a non-urban area. A wildfire can have different names, including brush fire, bush fire, forest fire, peat fire and so on, depending on the type of vegetation it destroys. There have been too many reported cases of wildfires that wreak havoc on massive areas to count. A few notable incidents include the 1871 wildfire of Pehstigo, Wisconsin, which leveled 1.5 million acres of forest and claimed the lives of 1500 people. Another wildfire that was even deadlier in terms of destruction occurred in 1910 in the Rocky Mountains. It vaporized 3 million acres of forest!

An Attempt to Tackle Wildfires

In order to deal with such deadly wildfires, an institution called the US Forest Service was introduced. Its objective was to not only prevent wildfires from occurring, but to extinguish any fire that threatened to be of a certain size by 10 AM the next day. This policy of aggressive fire control worked for a few decades, and the numbers related to total fires and area burned dipped to their lowest between 1920 and 1970.

us forest service

Image Source:

However, this did not necessarily mean that we had tackled the issue of wildfires for good. Lesser fires in these years meant that forests grew denser and a lot of dry wood and leaves accumulated on the forest floor (the perfect fuel to sustain fire). Therefore, the wilderness became more susceptible to large-scale devastation. Although the number of fires has declined, the fires that blaze today in forests are hotter, bigger and faster than the fires a few decades ago. Also, fires are set to be even hotter and drier than they currently are in the next few decades due to climate change and global warming.

The Way Out

Fortunately, this is not one of those unsolvable situations: this issue has a solution. Wildfires can be prevented from going so ‘wild’ by simply cutting off their fuel supply… but how can we do that?

As crazy as this may sound, we have to let a few fires burn themselves out. Sometimes, we even have to start a fire ourselves to make that happen. This obviously doesn’t mean that you should torch a forest any day you like; starting a controlled fire takes a lot of planning concerning the precise day and time. Basically, you want to choose a day that is relatively cool and not too windy, so that the fire doesn’t get out of hand.

selective trimming of forest

Selective trimming of forest (Image Credits: Svetlana Gajic/shutterstock)

Selective cutting of trees can also be carried out to trim down the area with a dense chunk of trees. When combined and properly timed, these techniques have actually made fires comparatively cooler, slower, and therefore less devastating. For instance, in a fire that broke out in 2006 in Okanogan County in Washington State, the areas where forests were denser sustained a loss of 92% of their total number of trees compared to only 49% in the areas where trees were freshly trimmed.

In other words, running around, wielding a fire extinguisher to tame a wildfire is not always a great idea to deal with these destructive blazes; there are some safer and more sensible methods at our disposal, even if it means occasionally letting a fire burn naturally.


  1. Wikipedia
  2. Why Are Wildfires Good For The Environment? – State University of New York (SUNY)
  3. Research Suggests Frequent Fires Could Help Forest Ecosystems – TreeHugger
  4. British Broadcasting Corporation (BBC)
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About the Author:

Ashish is a Science graduate (Bachelor of Science) from Punjabi University (India). He spends a lot of time watching movies, and an awful lot more time discussing them. He likes Harry Potter and the Avengers, and obsesses over how thoroughly Science dictates every aspect of life… in this universe, at least.

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