Tuesday, May 25, 2010

Wild Fire Anniversary

On this date in 1964 (two days before the birth of my favorite librarian), a fire raged across Miles Standish State Forest in Plymouth County. (This is near where we live now, but Pam was born at quite a safe distance in Baltimore).

Throughout the United States in the twentieth century, total fire suppression was the main approach to managing forests. The result in many areas was an over-accumulation of fuel on the surface, and a forest landscape that was remarkably homogeneous with respect to burning history. This situation facilitated both the vertical and the horizontal spread of fire that would be much greater than what would occur in natural conditions. That is, fuel on the surface would allow ecologically useful ground fires to spread upward into destructive crown fires. Moreover, the lateral spread of the fire would not be checked as it encountered recent burns, because there were no recent burns.

This situation first became widely understood in the United States during the 1988 Yellowstone fire. I had the good fortune of taking a landscape ecology course the following year, with a biologist/geographer who helped me make sense of the problem.

The Myles Standish article from Mass Moments explains how the 1964 fire was made possible by fire suppression and also explains some of the particular features that made this fire unique. It also highlights the problem of the wildland-urban interface, which is most commonly associated with the exurban areas of Denver, Phoenix, Los Angeles, and other Western cities, but no less relevant in the sandy forest areas of southeastern Massachusetts.

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