If there’s one thing I managed to learn from my forestry classes as UW (I took two, that makes me an expert) it’s that fires are a natural phenomenon that should really just run their course. Okay, granted it wasn’t a natural phenomenon so much that it stopped the Native Americans from burning the occasional field, but it was still a lot. But it was enough that these huge raging fires we get these days were few and far between.

The reason? The underbrush. Fires used to burn so regularly that the build up of dead wood under the forest canopy was minimal at best. Fires would start, run along the ground maybe a few feet high burning dead branches that had fallen to the ground and the occasional sapling. Then we came into the picture and said fires were a bad thing. We should put out the fires. We should put our houses in these areas that have no more fires. We don’t need to worry about forest fires because of firefighters.

The problem here is that whereas fires in the past used to be ground fires, now so much dead material builds up on the ground that the flames reach higher. The result? Canopy fires. These are the intense fires that wipe out thousands of square miles in a single day. It’s not the wind conditions, it’s not the temperature, it’s the fact that most forests are sitting on enough fuel to heat probably every home in the US (that’s a guess, I have no scientific data, in fact all of this is what I vaguely remember from a class I took four years ago).

They did a study once: they cleared all the underbrush and dead hanging branches in an area about two hundred yards wide and three miles long in the middle of a major forest in the Pacific Northwest. What they were doing was trying to re-create what the forest would be if fire were to take it’s frequent natural course.

Sure enough, within a few years a fire poured through the area. The fire was raging, canopies were burning, forest creatures were BBQing. Then it hit the fire break. The fire dropped down from the canopies (without the fuel to heat the canopies to burning temp as well as flames to reach them, they stayed unharmed) burned along the ground for the two hundred yards, and then jumped back up to the canopies as soon as it reached the other side. Pretty god-damned amazing. Photos of the place showed a blackened forest with a long strip of green down the middle. These are the reasons people do control burns.

Living in California and not having a fire break around your house is just as retarded as living in Florida and being surprised when a hurricane blows your house down. I say let the forests burn their natural course, or at least clear away all the dead material around your house before you start whining your house burned down.


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