Fighting fire with fire

Molly Hunter 225x150
Molly Hunter researches new methods of high-intensity fire prevention.

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 intense.”

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.

Sharing knowledge

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 West.

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.”