Global warming has wreaked havoc over the central US this summer, with crops withering, record high temps becoming the norm, and huge fires in Colorado. But the massive fires that have erupted throughout the west this year are not only the result of change in the global climate, but a century of humans misunderstanding of the forest eco-system, leading to a tinderbox unrecognizable from its natural state for a least a millennium. So, where did Smoky the Bear go wrong?

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Photo US Forest Service

Much of the west is under threat from a buildup of fuels over generations, which has in turn led to fires not seen for over a thousand years. The face of the western forests is changing dramatically and the largest culprit is the suppression of fire in the first place. Much of the forests have evolved for fire, clearing the underbrush and smaller trees, and sparing the larger, more robust trees like Douglas Firs, Redwoods and Ponderosa Pines.”Cool” fires of low intensity slung through a forest floor as often as 5-15 years. While the forests evolved to this regular interval, human intervention virtually stopped forest fires starting in the 1890s. The result is landscapes choked with vegetation leading to  extreme fire behavior. The historically intense infernos fanned by a hotter and dryer climate are virtually impossible to control. As a result, the fire fighting effort consumes half of the Forest Service budget , and much of that land will not be reestablished to its historic condition.

Forest management now considers controlled burning the most cost effective and environmentally positive solution to the buildup of fuels. Smokey the Bear’s mission of stomping out all fire is now a relic of the past. The biggest hurdle now is as more people have built in what is called the wildland-urban interface, the prospect of controlled burns becomes more risky. The head on collision of human needs and the forest eco system has come full brunt, and without a methodical restoration process, will lead to even larger fires in coming years. The carbon sink of our forest will be lost.

In the past decade some homes are being built to withstand fire and property owners are managing the forests they live in — ironically making the chainsaw the best tool for keeping the forest healthy. Efforts to mechanically reduce fuel loads at a large scale though is costly and has become political posturing for clear cutting. The only true way to keep forest healthy is reintroducing fire back into the eco system and learning to live with it — even if it is something we are instinctively prone to avoid.

+ How the Smokey the Bear Effect Led to Raging Wildfires on NPR