NPR

Fire Ecologists Say More Fires Should Be Left To Burn. So Why Aren't They?

Fire ecologists are urging forest managers to allow more wildfires to burn on the landscape to help thin overgrown forests. Many challenges stand in the way.
Fire ecologist Malcolm North looks down at the still-burning Lions Fire from a ridge in the Sierra Nevadas. Source: Nathan Rott

When a wildfire starts, whether by lightning or human hand, it is almost always smothered.

Firefighters and aircraft are dispatched at the first sign of smoke. Ground crews build tight containment lines, contouring where they can with the fire's edge. Helicopters douse hot spots and flames with deluges of foamy water.

The public and media extol their efforts. The headline reads, "Brave firefighters tame destructive fire."

Malcolm North, a fire ecologist with the U.S. Forest Service and the University of California, Davis, gets it. He once worked as a wildland firefighter himself.

The problem, he says, is that approach to wildfire is not just short-sighted, it's dangerous.

Overgrown forests, the result of a century of aggressive firefighting, are one of the biggest contributors to the types of massive, catastrophic fires that

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