Where There's Fuel, There Could Be Fire

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Published on: Mar. 2, 2004

Last revision: Nov. 16, 2010

Forests have always burned, but large fires in the South and in the West recently have caused an exceptional amount of property damage and an unfortunate loss of lives. What made these fires burn so hot and with such intensity was an accumulation of brush and dead wood on the forest floor.

Heavy fuel loads that result in damaging fires don't happen by accident. Ironically, they are often a result of too much fire control. As we have built our roads, reservoirs, towns, private homes and developments, we've extinguished fire from the natural cycle of our urban and suburban woodlands. Whenever fires threaten our homes and towns, we put them out quickly and aggressively. Our roads and right-of-ways also serve as natural fire breaks. Without periodic burning, however, fuel loads on the forest floor keep increasing. Eventually the fuel load becomes so high that it can contribute to an uncontrollable fire.

We also brought in non-native species of plants for forage, landscaping and timber production. These plants (fescue, brome, old world bluestems) create more dead fuels, while multiflora rose and nonnative pines are richer in oils and resins so they burn hotter than naturally occurring vegetation.

While battling the wildfires that our culture helped to create, government began trying to control the fuel buildups that make wildfires worse. State and federal agencies across the nation have increased the amount of land burned intentionally (called prescribed burning) to reduce the amount of fuels available for wildfires. They have also increased the amount of timber harvested to decrease fuel loading.

At the same time, a group of six federal agencies initiated the Joint Fire Sciences Program. The participating agencies are the U.S. Forest Service, Bureau of Land Management, Bureau of Indian Affairs, National Park Service, U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service, and the U.S. Geological Survey. The Joint Fire Sciences Program uses federal funds to gather scientific information about wild land fuels and fuel management from across the nation. Sound scientific information is necessary for land managers to make the right choices when faced with fuel management issues.

Missouri is more fortunate than states to our west in our wildfire control efforts. Our climate is wetter, so we get a lot more rain each year than western states. The moisture helps our leaves and ground plants decay and return to the soil rather than accumulate as fuel. Also, when we have lightning storms here,

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