Forest fires are unpredictable, and burn at varying intensities. Fire creates stark landscapes and paints a dramatic, destructive picture. For over a century, we have fought and attempted to suppress fires, including backcountry Wilderness fires that do not pose any risk to communities. Our efforts to suppress fire appeared quite successful because it coincided with a long wet period in the West from the late 1930s to the late 1980s. This led to the belief that we can and must fight and put out all fire. While firefighters work valiantly to defend homes and communities from burning, the reality is that most large fires are driven by weather, and put out by it too. The Yellowstone fires and the biggest fires in Oregon, Washington and Alaska were extinguished when the wind died down and the rains came. We have to be careful to avoid causing fires in dry and windy weather, as these are the most challenging fires.
Experience has shown that fire is driven mostly by wind and drought, not by the presence or absence of flammable grass, brush or trees. Big fires in the West burn through grasslands and shrublands where there are not trees, and the fire is most fierce when the fine fuels are super dry and the winds are strong. Yet we continue to talk about fighting wildfire, suggesting that we believe we can control this elemental and powerful force. Yet we must ask ourselves tough questions. Are we able to fight and suppress big fires? Are we able to take steps to prevent fire before it burns? What can we do to protect homes and communities? There are answers, yet accepting them will require us to question conventional wisdom and long held cultural beliefs.