So what human activities can we change to prevent extreme wildfires?
To begin, we can change how we approach fire suppression. Of course we should suppress high-intensity, extreme wildfires that destroy, rather than renew, the natural forest ecology and that genuinely threaten homes and communities. But we should also manage, rather than suppress, lower-intensity fires by allowing them to burn out to prevent monumental fuel loads from building up.
But our response to fires alone cannot address extreme wildfire behavior. We must take more active management approaches to address catastrophic wildfires long before they ignite. One of our best tools to accomplish this is grazing.
Grazing livestock is a valuable and proven tool to reduce the risk of severe wildfires. Like your lawn, which requires trimming and mowing, rangelands and forests need attention or they die. Allowing livestock to graze on the annually renewing forage on our public lands maintains the health and vitality of these ecosystems by reducing fuel loads that can lead to extreme wildfire behavior during peak fire season.
No one is calling for a reckless, grazing free-for-all on our public lands. But the number of intense, ecologically devastating wildfires has risen significantly in recent decades, while grazing on public lands has dramatically declined over the last 65 years.
For example, some states have seen grazing reductions of more than 70 percent on lands administered by the Bureau of Land Management. While correlation does not always mean causation, these trends support the concept that increasing grazing on public lands is a reasonable and responsible way to reduce the likelihood of intense wildfires.
Grazing alone will not answer the West’s wildfire woes. It must be accompanied by other active management practices like prescribed burns, logging and strategically placed fire breaks. We will never be able to stop wildfires on our public lands, nor should we. The West was meant to burn, heal and regenerate. But we aren’t powerless to stop those extreme wildfires that break historical norms and devastate the West.
It’s time we rise above the habit of simply watching the West reduce to ashes each summer while citing drought, wind and climate change as the source of record levels of wildfire. Shrugging our shoulders at hotter and more intense wildfires that could be prevented by active land management practices is consenting to the loss of wildlife habitat, homes and human life that these wildfires take.
We can do better. Both the environment and Western communities deserve better. We must act now and integrate more active management tools into the protection of our public lands and rural communities.