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Good Fires in the Forest

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    U.S. Forest Service crew members put tree branches into a wood chipper as they prepare for a prescribed burn in the Tahoe National Forest near Downieville, California. (AP/Godofredo A. Vásquez)
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    Fire Battalion Chief Craig Newell carries a hose while battling the North Complex Fire in Plumas National Forest, California, in September 2020. (AP/Noah Berger)
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    An air tanker drops fire retardant to battle the Dixie Fire in Plumas County, California, in July 2021. (Paul Kitagaki Jr./The Sacramento Bee via AP)
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    Tahoe National Forest supervisor Eli Ilano surveys downed trees near Camptonville, California. They will be burned as part of the Forest Service’s efforts to make the forest more resistant to wildfires and droughts. (AP/Godofredo A. Vásquez)
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    A Ponderosa pine tree, showing signs of a wildfire burn, blooms at the Santa Clara Canyon in northern New Mexico. (AP/Andres Leighton)
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Enlisting chainsaws, heavy machinery, and controlled burns, U.S. leaders seek to reduce massive wildfires in western states. The strategy: a multi-billion dollar cleanup of forests choked with dead trees and undergrowth.

An infrastructure bill passed two years ago included a requirement to treat forests across 10 million acres by 2027. Less than 10% of that was addressed in the first year.

What makes this such a challenge? For starters, there haven’t been enough fires. Several hundred years ago, Native Americans used fires to manage forests. Small, controlled fires burned off small trees, grasses, and brush. But for much of the 1900s, officials sought to completely suppress forest fires. That allowed readily burnable forest fuels to build up. The result: extreme, hard-to-control wildfires—which may threaten populated areas.

By logging and burning trees and low-lying vegetation, forest managers hope to reduce the amount of forest fuel. That could keep fires that start on federal lands smaller, preventing them from turning volatile and racing through nearby cities and towns.

The plan to reach the government’s goals includes increased logging. The growing toll from wildfires has softened longstanding opposition from some environmental groups.

“Gone are the days when things were black and white and either good or bad,” says Melinda Booth, former director of the South Yuba River Citizens League. “We need targeted treatment . . . which does include logging.”

Too much logging can be harmful. Practices like clear-cutting—cutting or bulldozing all trees and underbrush in an area—can destroy forests and allow soil erosion. But responsible loggers find a balance between making a living and sustaining forests. That might include carefully choosing an area to harvest and leaving some of the best trees.

Seth Phillips studied Forest Management Technology at Haywood Community College in Clyde, North Carolina. He’s also worked for the National Park Service at Great Smoky Mountains National Park. Phillips points out that many native plant and animal species have adapted to fire. Some species, such as the ponderosa pine, require fire to reproduce. Fires can help keep forest ecosystems healthy while controlling invasive species, which are often not fire-adapted. For example, when fire clears out undergrowth, sunlight can more easily reach the forest floor. That plus nutrient-rich ash allows seedlings to flourish.

“With education, peoples’ point of view can be transformed from seeing a forest that has been set on fire as a wasteland to seeing it as regeneration,” Phillips says. “When I go out hiking and I come through an area that’s had a prescribed burn, I get excited about it because I know what the results of that will be.”

Why? Huge wildfires that burn out of control are a serious problem. But God provides tools to steward forests, including controlled burns and selective, intentional logging.

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