In some places, forest fires make up an important part of the natural ecosystem. Wild fires burn is an area of land greater than the country of India every year.
Catastrophic wildfires are on the rise in the western United States and a set of conditions may be contributing to a perfect storm for more fires. While grazing and fire suppression have kept incidents of wildfires unusually low for most of the last century, the amounts of combustible biomass, temperatures and drought are all rising. The result is a "fire deficit," in which current conditions and past fire suppression practices have pushed fire regimes out of equilibrium with climate.
Wildfires have been debated for years as either a destructive force of nature that should be eradicated or natural disturbance that keep ecosystems healthy. National policy over the last century had been to respond rapidly to suppress all wildfires, but with increasing occurrence of catastrophic wildfires in the region such practices have come into question. In recent years local forest managers have been given more latitude to evaluate which fires to suppress while ensuring public safety, and which ones to allow to burn themselves out.
The usual choice is to suppress (put out) these fires, which leads to increased fuel loads in the forest . This practice, combined with a projection of increasingly drier climates ahead, spells a recipe for increasing disaster for forested ecosystems.
Earth scientist Scott Anderson says, "In the near future, since our forests and their fuel loads are not in balance with their natural fire regimens, we can expect to see additional huge fires such as last year's Wallow Fire that burned 540,000 acres in Arizona and Las Conchas Fire that burned 156,000 acres in New Mexico."
According to Anderson, "The fire deficit situation is unsustainable, now and long into the future. If it is not addressed quickly--and many of us believe it is too late already--it will likely lead to widespread and long-enduring changes in forest types across the West."
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