With wildfires burning, it is useful to turn to the wisdom of the ancients. When the pioneers first entered the great forests of America, they found that the Native Americans had managed the forests for centuries. Their woodlands contained very few big trees—maybe fifty such trees per acre. Apparently the Indians had set regular, low intensity fires which burned away accumulations of undergrowth, deadwood, dying trees and particularly small trees growing between the big trees. The larger trees were unharmed, because of their thick fire-resistant bark. These fires kept the forest healthy by providing a barrier to disease.
The pioneers, however, used much more wood in their civilization than the Native Americans. They needed it for housing, for boats and river ships, for railroad sleepers, for carriages, and for town infrastructure. To them, fire was an enemy. Quick growth of new trees was important. Policies were put in place that suppressed all fire. This culminated in the creation of Smokey Bear in 1945. Three years later, his catchphrase was born: "Remember — only you can prevent forest fires."
The price was a degradation of the health of American forests. Private logging firms continued to keep forests healthy where they operated, by clearing out the underbrush and deadwood and harvesting trees to clear spaces between other trees. Where loggers did not operate, undergrowth and deadwood began to accumulate. These are dangerous, because small trees, for example, provide ladders for the fire to climb to reach the crown of mature trees, where the fires can take hold instead of being shrugged off by the thick bark below.
Meanwhile, more and more land came to be controlled by the federal government, and therefore came under the control of an under-funded bureaucracy.
In the 1970s, the birth of the environmental movement made American forest policies worse. Environmentalists are dogmatically opposed to man's interference with nature. They objected to the "unnatural" control of forest fires created by natural means—by lightning strike, for example. A new policy replaced the previous one of suppression of all fires. Natural fires were to be allowed to burn until they burned themselves out - a return to a natural cycle of death and regrowth. One environmental activist put it succinctly: "Save a forest; let it burn."
Environmental dogma combined with bureaucratic collectivism to create disaster. Superimposing natural-burn policies on top of a hundred-year accumulation of fuel was like leaving a tinderbox out in the sun.
Iain Murray is Vice President for Strategy at the Competitive Enterprise Institute. His most recent book is Stealing You Blind: How Government Fatcats Are Getting Rich Off of You