While this year’s record-breaking heat and drought have many people worrying about wildfires, a USU researcher is encouraging people to take a longer-term, more nuanced view.
“We don’t get the choice to not have fire, because we will have fire on our landscapes,” said USU assistant professor Larissa Yocom. “I think our goal needs to be to move as many fires as possible into the type that are beneficial for ecosystems and don’t cause harm to human values, like homes, lives, watersheds, that sort of thing.”
Yocom, a researcher in Utah State University’s department of wildland resources, will share insights from her research on wildfires during a virtual Research Landscapes event at 11:30 a.m. on Tuesday.
“There’s a lot of agreement in the scientific community as well as in the fire management community that more fire could actually help,” Yocom said. “But it would be nice for the public to be aware of that to a greater extent. Our best tools, potentially, for trying to prevent the kind of destructive, catastrophic fires that we do see in the news may be fire that’s burning in more mild conditions.”
While the message that fire can be natural and beneficial is likely familiar to many — especially those familiar with fire management in Yellowstone National Park — Yocom said it’s important to know that “beneficial fire” means different things in different types of forest.
“So some forests, historically, before the 20th century, with indigenous fire management and then with lightning strikes, burned frequently,” Yocom said. “And then there’s another type of forest, on the other end of the spectrum, that has always burned at high severity, in crown fires, infrequently.”
Forested areas in drier, lower-elevation areas might have burned once every 5-10 years, Yocom said, but with “surface fires” that only burned through needles and grass on the forest floor. The overstory trees, on the other hand, wouldn’t be killed by surface fires because they’re adapted to survive surface fires.
On the other end of the spectrum, some forested areas might only see a wildfire every couple hundred years, but the surface as well as the overstory would burn, and then a new crop of trees would grow afterward.
While human suppression of wildfires has caused a dangerous buildup of fuel and thus a greater chance of “disaster” fires in some forests, Yocom said, the truth is again more complex.
“In places that historically burned frequently, we’ve had a buildup of fuels, because … they’ve missed who knows how many fires, maybe 10, maybe 12 fires over the past 100-plus years,” Yocom said. “In other places, where fires never did burn more than every couple hundred years, no place that you can point to has definitively missed a fire. … So when you think about it across an entire landscape, we’re missing this mosaic pattern of ages, species, kind of patches where fires would have burned in the absence of human intervention.”
And just because a fire can be beneficial, it doesn’t mean people should be lax when it comes to wildfire safety. By law, agencies can only use highly regulated prescribed burns or decide to let lightning-caused wildfires burn as part of forest management, Yocom said. Officials have to suppress, or at least attempt to suppress, human-caused fires. Those types of incidents are relatively common in the American West, started by unattended campfires, shooting Tannerite or other exploding targets, and in recent years even “gender reveal” parties involving home-modified pyrotechnics.
Not every fire is beneficial, according to Yocom. Severe fires burning in areas that aren’t fire-adapted could mean the forest doesn’t grow back and the area is converted to grassland. And in any case, officials suppress fires that threaten human life and structures, watersheds or sensitive habitat — tasks that are much harder when people start fires in dry seasons or even in drought conditions.
Yocom said it can be frustrating when fire seasons are summed up in numbers of acres burned, because some of that could have been beneficial.
“We’re actually in a fire deficit,” Yocom said. “We actually have a lot of unhealthy ecosystems that need more fire. And so just acres burned alone isn’t very helpful in trying to determine how many of those acres were beneficial versus how many were harmful.”
Because that fire deficit started building up in the 20th century, some researchers are examining the ways Native Americans managed fire, and still do manage fire in some areas they retain or have regained that right. Yocom mentioned the White Mountain Apache in Arizona as one community that’s used fire for ecological benefit.
“They have managed to burn almost all of their timberlands, at this point, and at least one wildfire, and they’re starting to get repeat burns,” Yocom said. “I think that they’ve been recognized for their progressiveness in not just immediately stamping out fire as soon as it’s found.”
Because the term “Native Americans” covers hundreds of different cultures living in diverse landscapes, it’s important not to overgeneralize and think of all Native Americans as using the same management strategies. In some areas in pre-colonial America, human-started fires may have been more common, and in other areas lightning starts may still have been the main cause, Yocom said. Some groups used fire to promote plants that thrive in those conditions, and some used it to clear agricultural land.
“They didn’t dominate fire starts across the entire West, but they were definitely important stewards of fire and landscapes,” Yocom said. “I think more and more recognition has gone into the idea that this wasn’t a pristine landscape when white settlers got to the West. It had been used and managed for centuries and millennia before white people arrived.”
People can RSVP and get a link to Yocom’s presentation at research.usu.edu/landscapes. Afterward, a video of the presentation will be available on the USU Research Landscapes YouTube channel.
An interview with Yocom on the topic is also available on USU’s “Instead” podcast, featuring the university’s researchers, on Spotify or at https://research.usu.edu/instead/fire-cycle.