Fighting fire with fire
Dr. Molly Hunter, an Associate Research Professor at
Northern Arizona University, has demonstrated that an unorthodox approach to
wildfire management is effective at reducing a fire’s intensity. That approach?
Letting the wildfires burn.
Hunter has proven that natural wildfires, as long as they
are closely monitored, are beneficial to forest ecology because they help to
ensure that future wildfires are less damaging than the ones that typically dominate
the media during the summer months.
Her conclusion comes from examining areas that have been
using this approach to fire management for decades. These areas in the Gila
National Forest in New Mexico and Saguaro National Park outside Tucson have
been successful in preventing high-intensity fires.
Hunter took the data extracted from these areas and entered
it into a computer model that predicts the intensity of a fire.
“If a fire were to start there under these conditions, what
the model shows is that you would expect relatively low intensity surface
fires,” Hunter says. “So not these big, extreme events that are in other places
throughout the West today.”
Stop fueling the flames
The reasoning behind the method is that fire is an effective
way to remove fuels from the environment.
“By keeping fires out, we’ve created a buildup of fuel,”
Hunter says. “By fuel, I mean a lot more vegetation, a lot more trees, and a
lot more wood on the ground. So when fires do spread now, they’re a lot more
Traditional fuel management techniques, like thinning, are difficult
to implement in the Southwest. Hunter describes thinning as the process of
going in and cutting down trees, then removing the resulting debris.
“The problem we have in the Southwest is the material—there’s
not much of a market for it,” Hunter says. “That’s why it’s so difficult and
expensive to perform thinning across large scales.”
That’s where her research comes in. Without the economic
feasibility of thinning, a better preventative technique is needed. “We can let the fire do some of the work on
reducing fuels that we haven’t been able to accomplish through thinning,” she explains.
Hunter currently teaches courses at Northern Arizona University
designed for land management and fire management professionals. These courses
incorporate her research with the hope that the people in charge of protecting
natural resources will apply this technique in wildfire management.
People who work for the Forest Service and the Park Service
who learn about Hunter’s research gain a new perspective on fire management.
”People are often very reactive when it comes to fires, so I
think my research has really informed
proactive practices on fire management,” Hunter says.
By communicating her research to these managers, Hunter
hopes they gain another “tool in the toolbox,” of fire management techniques.
Ultimately, she believes this will reduce the threat of wildfires across the
The importance of reducing fires
Hunter’s research is vital during a time of increasing
wildfires. According to the American Geophysical Union, wildfires in the
western United States have increased in number and size over the last thirty
years. That number is expected to continue to grow as higher temperatures and
longer droughts persist.
On a local level, Hunter’s research is important to the Northern
Arizona University community. Earlier this summer, the Slide Fire burned over
21,000 acres of forest just 13 miles southeast of Flagstaff. Hunter explains that
the fire was interesting because it required a different perspective on
firefighting, which she believes is an important step in the right direction.
“Fire managers took a
different approach. In some areas they let the fire burn a little bit if it wasn’t
threatening resources. I think it was a great example of how we’re beginning to
take a look at the science and what it entails.”