Forestry expert and Cornell Cooperative Extension Associate Mark C. Whitmore grew up in the Western United States and conducted forestry research in the area impacted by this week’s California fires.
Whitmore says fire is a natural part of those ecosystems, but past forestry practices coupled with climate change serve to intensify the severity of such fires.
“I grew up in the western states fighting forest fires and learning forestry. I have been witness to the awesome destructive power of forest fires and the devastation left in their path. However, I also learned that fires are a natural part of the western forest ecosystem. Forest species are adapted to live with fires, and indeed thrive in their presence.
“For many decades, forest management has focused on extinguishing fires as soon as they start and this has led to an accumulation of dead woody debris that feeds the intense, destructive fires we are currently witnessing. With a natural fire regimen, periodic burning of low-intensity fires reduces this debris load. Foresters have recognized this and efforts in the west are being made to reduce fuel loads but this is a costly process and there is a large backlog of lands to manage.
“To compound the problem, rising temperatures with climate change are drying forests earlier in the season and fire seasons are lasting longer. Long-term management of forests must recognize the shifting paradigm associated with climate change and efforts to reduce fuel loads through forest management need to be stepped up to protect all resources associated with western forests.”