Guest Column: Wildfires should be allowed to burn

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RBC | With numerous fires burning at various locations around the region it is hard to go anywhere without hearing a discussion about the flames and smoke. People are afraid of where the fires might travel, worried about air quality from the smoke and are sending up prayers for the fire fighters. My Facebook feed is filled with images of the fires and my email inbox with clips from state and national news organizations sent to me by concerned family. But does it have to be this way?
Anytime a spark hits the brush a horde of fire crews from around the country risk their lives to put the flames out. We hear on the news that fire crews and budgets are stretched too thin. We live in an area heavily surrounded by open rangeland where a person can travel for hours without seeing a single structure. In areas like ours perhaps a more liberal wildfire policy that would allow open rangelands without structures to occasionally burn would not only prevent future fires from growing so large, but also replenish the land and protect lives.
Fire is a necessary force of nature and one of the tools Mother Nature uses to keep ecological balance. As old growth accumulates it can prevent the development of biological diversity, allowing one species of plant to take over an area. The lack of varied plant growth eventually impacts wildlife, driving them to seek more diverse feed grounds. This dead and old growth accumulation also makes great fire fuel and is one of the reasons why so many wildfires grow out of control quickly.
Once an area has burned it becomes naturally fire resistant for decades. Following a fire, the range becomes a green zone, where grass is plentiful and woody growth is slow. Without the excess woody growth, the area is much less susceptible to fire and much less likely to burn out of control.
Surprisingly for many, fire also leads to more water. Trees and other large woody plants require more water than lower growing grasses. When trees such as pinyons and junipers are allowed to dominate an area without the natural check of fire, water resources in the area become increasingly limited. After a fire it is common to find new water seeps and increased aquifer levels with the decreased water demand.
As a rancher I have witnessed the phenomenon of fire leading to natural regeneration first hand. In 2012 the Dragon Fire burned 25,000 acres, some of that on our BLM allotment. Following the fire, the area has gone from little grass and water to an abundance of both. Five years ago it was unusual to find cows or wildlife doing more than passing through the area. Now the burn provides abundant feed for deer and the new water seeps encourage grazing in the area.
Clearly structures such as homes and oil and gas developments located in remote areas should be protected. However, risking the lives of firemen to save a patch of sagebrush is simply unnecessary. Not only is fighting wildfire expensive (Federal Agencies forked out more than $1.9 billion for fire suppression in 2016), but it stops the natural process of the Earth.
Fortunately, if we reverse course and spend less time fearing fire and more time seeing it for the natural tool it is we can achieve a less dangerous fire season. More frequent burns will lead to smaller burns, which would in the end, keep both the land and the people safe and healthy. Allowing the remote range to naturally burn would also free up the man power and resources needed to stop those fires that do threaten homes and structures.
As fire season rages on we will continue to pray for those whose homes and property are in the way of the flames as well as those who seek to protect it all while hoping that maybe we will finally be able to have a real conversation about fire and the usefulness of letting the brush burn.