Wildfires break out in the United States approximately 100,000 times each year, according to National Geographic. Also known as forest fires and wildland fires, these fires are fueled by dry underbrush as well as hot, dry and windy weather conditions. Controlling and extinguishing these fires is often challenging and dangerous. Firefighters and other emergency responders often employ one of two tactics: fire suppression or fire use. But the U.S. Forest Service believes both methods can be used on the same fire.
Fire Suppression: Clear Objective
When a wildfire is burning, the most basic, and many believe the most logical, course of action is to suppress or extinguish the fire, limiting the impact on surrounding infrastructure, people and ecosystems. Firefighters and responders suppress fires using several methods, including dousing flames with water from powerful hoses, dropping fire-retardant chemicals from planes and clearing away vegetation in surrounding areas that could potentially fuel wildfires. The goal is always to put out the fire.
In contrast, fire use is a fire-management strategy that allows the fire to continue burning in a controlled fashion. From a firefighting standpoint, assessing how long and how far you should allow a fire to burn and continue spreading is often difficult.
Fire Suppression: Speed
The goal with fire suppression is not just to eliminate the fire, but also to eliminate the fire as quickly as possible. The U.S. Forest Service stresses the importance of “rapidity of action,” noting that firefighters and responders should rapidly deploy and concentrate fire suppression resources. These rapid actions can help increase the effectiveness of a fire suppression program, resulting in lower rates of fire-related deaths, property loss and environmental destruction. In contrast, fire use does not emphasize speed of action, but instead offers slower, more long-term solutions for quenching wildfires.
Fire Use: Environmental Benefits
By allowing a wildfire to burn naturally through fire use, firefighters and responders can -- in some instances -- help improve environmental conditions in specific areas. As National Geographic says, wildfires return nutrients to underlying soils by burning dead and decaying organic matter. In addition, wildfires left to burn through fire use can remove harmful and diseased plants and animals, while also clearing away canopies and dense undergrowth that prevent younger plants from attaining sunlight. In some instances, groups known as Fire Use Management Teams will purposefully set wildfires, known as prescribed fires, to create these beneficial environmental conditions.
Fire Use: Safety
From a safety perspective, allowing a fire to essentially run its course through fire use is a better option in comparison to fire suppression, as it does not require that firefighters and responders directly engage the roaring flames. Even the fire use tactic of setting prescribed fires is relatively safe, as Fire Use Management Teams only light the fires in specific “windows” of ideal conditions. They monitor such conditions as humidity, temperature and winds.
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