Rethinking Fire

If you live in the western US, late summer has become a time of dread. Wildfires are rampant and getting worse. In California, each year there are thousands of fires burning millions of acres. Homes are destroyed, infrastructure damaged, habitats are devastated. The sky turns a sickly orange and the air becomes thick with smoke, making it unhealthy to even go outside.

The human and environmental toll from wildfire has been devastating, and it is getting worse. A combination of drought, warmer temperatures, and years of fire suppression have created the perfect storm for disastrous fires going forward.

In the short term, there may not be a whole lot we can do, as there are some areas that are so overgrown that a devastating fire is inevitable.

In the longer term there are people working in multiple directions to improve the situation. In Western Oregon, indigenous fire techniques are regaining popularity

Native American communities in western Oregon have been tending the land with fire since time immemorial. This practice, known today as cultural burning, offers many lessons on the value of fire to care for land and water. Cultural burnings are an ecological practice grounded in Indigenous science that prevents disastrous fire seasons, nourishes watersheds, sustains traditional food sources and maintains cultural practices and keeps memories alive across generations. 

Fire-dependent Indigenous land management and agricultural practices refined over countless generations shaped the rich landscapes encountered by Europeans in the 19th century. Fire has always been essential to tend to our traditional food-producing places and therefore has a direct and tangible impact on our overall health as a people

Researchers at Stanford have also developed a flame retardant that they claim is environmentally benign and highly effective

Applied to ignition-prone areas, these materials retain their ability to prevent fires throughout the peak fire season, even after weathering that would sweep away conventional fire retardants. By stopping fires from starting, such treatments can be more effective and less expensive than current firefighting methods.

To lower the damage from fires in the future, improve the health of our forests and wildlife habitats, and our own health will take new thinking and innovations in numerous directions.

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