The Benefits and Drawbacks of Wildfires: Climate Action Club Hosts Miller and Tierney

This past Wednesday, December 9 at 6:00 PM, the Climate Action Club invited Steven Miller, the Eastern Regional Director of the U.S. Forest Service’s Fire and Aviation Management and a board member of the International Association of Wildland Fire, to speak about his firsthand experience fighting fires during an online webinar.

This past Wednesday, December 9 at 6:00 PM, the Climate Action Club invited Steven Miller, the Eastern Regional Director of the U.S. Forest Service’s Fire and Aviation Management and a board member of the International Association of Wildland Fire, to speak about his firsthand experience fighting fires during an online webinar.Joining him was Princeton University Ph.D. student Julie Tierney, who discussed her research on fire ecology and the impact of wildfires on local and global ecosystems.

Miller first spoke of the impact of human fire-prevention methods on the nation’s flora and fauna. He explained a method known as the 10 AM Policy, a policy created by the U.S. Forest Service that demanded that firefighters suppress any wildfires by 10:00 AM the next day. Many animals and plants depend on monthly or annual wildfire cycles to support their habitats. However, when the 10 AM Policy was implemented in 1935, Miller demonstrated how the policy of rapid fire suppression “changed the way [the landscape] grew [by] changing the ecosystem.”

“Because there were frequent fires on the surface that could not spread, the vegetation pattern changed...Not only were the plants of an ecosystem changed by human efforts, but certain species have been negatively affected as well...These species start to struggle because their habitat isn’t being maintained,” he said.

Miller emphasized a major consequence from the policy, noting that “one of the reasons that [some animals] are threatened or endangered is because we’ve interrupted the fire cycle.” By working to quickly extinguish each and every fire, humans had inadvertently changed the ecosystem.

As a result, Miller explained how his team “is trying to put fire back on the landscape in a moderate format to try and reinvigorate the species that are dependent on that disturbance.” In particular, he spoke about a more controlled approach of wildfires involving prescribed burnings of smaller areas.

“There are times we literally have to paint landscapes with fire, whether to prevent future wildfire risk or for ecological reasons. I remember this pivotal moment when professors came in and talked to us about silviculture, which they described as the art and science of growing trees on the landscape,” he said.

Miller emphasized the importance of his current job as fire director, as he has “the responsibility of art and science in regards to having fire on the landscape. There are some times and some places where fire is entirely appropriate. There are other times when the weather is extreme, or the fuel load is too high, or there are developed resources that we need to protect, where fire is not appropriate on the landscape.” Reflecting on the importance of combining both art and science, he continued, “It’s really about finding that balance between art and science. I view art as the experience of doing it [while also] using the science building blocks that we’ve learned about fire behavior.”

Miller then shared his experiences with this year’s wildfires in Australia, reflecting on his experience as part of a group of American firefighters that traveled to Australia in order to assist in fire suppression. He explained how firefighting was a global effort. With wildfire levels reaching record highs in Australia, they “reached out to the U.S. and Canada to ask for help,” he added. Because the United States and Australia have supported each other in wildfire suppression many times in the past, Miller pointed out that “the sharing of resources globally is important,” and that his team “was committed to helping [the Australians] out [because] it really was a situation of reciprocity.” Following Miller’s presentation, he answered some questions during a Q&A session where he shared more stories about his experiences and the techniques firefighters have adapted to effectively prevent fires.

Afterwards, Tierney gave her presentation on fire ecology and fire-dependent ecosystems. Tierney started by emphasizing the effects of climate change on wildfires, especially in how they increase the intensity and frequency. “Wildfires were made more likely because of the conditions caused by climate change…in order to cause fires, we need the right conditions; we need it to be hot and dry, we need lots of burnable fuel, and we need a spark. What’s happening now is that climate change has really stacked the deck in favor of bigger and more intense fires in many parts of the world like Australia and the American West,” she said.

Tierney also addressed the reasons as to how climate affects fires. “Increasing heat, changing rain and snow patterns, and shifts in plant communities, which are all symptoms of climate change, are all contributing to [wildfires].”

After sharing some of the impacts of fires on ecosystems, Tierney was emphatic on what the next generation needed to do moving forward. To conclude her presentation, she emphasized how to prevent an excess in wildfires, saying, “the solution is to stop burning fossil fuels. These devastating wildfires are becoming more frequent because of climate change, and climate change is being caused by increasing amounts of carbon dioxide and other greenhouse gases in the atmosphere...A lot of people in power do not like this solution, but it is the only way, really the only way, for our planet to remain healthy.”

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