Controlled burn
(Photo credit: U.S. Forest Service photo by Liz Younger, Forest Fire Planner / Flikr)

To help prevent deadly wildfires, some forest researchers* say we need to fight fire with fire.

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Hurteau: “In the Southwest, historically, these drier forest systems burned relatively frequently. And you would get primarily surface fire that would just burn up, say, leaf matter and, you know, branches and stuff that have fallen to the ground, but killed relatively few adult trees.”

That’s Matthew Hurteau of the University of New Mexico. He says over the past century, aggressive fire suppression has led to forests dense with trees and leaves, which act as fuel. And climate change has made conditions drier and warmer, so when fires do start, they burn hotter, spread faster, and do more damage.

Intense fires are also bad for the climate because they kill a lot of trees. When trees die and decompose, they release the carbon stored in their roots and branches.

Hurteau: “Those areas that burn under what we call high severity where there is high tree mortality are going to be a source of carbon to the atmosphere for quite some time.”

So by using small, controlled fires that thin vegetation, forest managers can reduce the risk of large wildfires – and help protect the climate.

Reporting credit: Sarah Kennedy/ChavoBart Digital Media

*Editor’s note: This sentence was updated 1/25/19 to more accurately reflect Matthew Hurteau’s role.