Let wildfires burn more often

Published on
January 5, 2022

Wisse van Engelen, a junior researcher at the Environmental Policy group, argues that wildfires cannot be suppressed entirely. Given their important ecological role, Wisse makes a case for allowing wildfires to have free rein under certain circumstances. The following article was published in the NRC Climate Opinion blog on December 13 (2021).

"Let wildfires burn more often''

NRC climate opinon piece by Wisse van Engelen

Published in NRC Climateblog December 13, 2021

The news last summer about wildfires in southern Europe will have escaped no-one’s notice. As extreme weather conditions become more frequent across the globe, we are also hearing more about wildfires. But what many people don’t know is that there are also many wildfires in the Netherlands each year. Wildfire experts warn about uncontrollable fires, and climate change is making the problem worse.

Robust wildfire management is therefore very important and it needs to look beyond simply suppressing fires. Allowing wildfires to burn, as part of an integrated wildfire management approach, could be beneficial within certain set limits. We can look at wildfire management in the United States, but there are also lessons to be learned in our own country.

Fire deficit

When it comes to our own wildfire management, we can learn from other people’s mistakes. In the case of the United States, their initial policy in the twentieth century was to suppress all wildfires. Later, fires caused by lightning were allowed to burn within certain prescriptions. However, because fires had been kept out for such a long time, flammable biomass had accumulated, resulting in a so-called ‘fire deficit’ and devastating fires as a consequence. The policy had defeated its own purpose.

Debate exists as to whether this fire deficit resulted from the suppression of lightning-induced fires or of the historical fire practices of indigenous peoples. US policy was based on a romantic idea of nature in which humans were excluded. According to this view, the American ‘wilderness’ was only exposed to fire caused by lightning; it ignored the significant role that indigenous peoples played in shaping the landscape through fire.

Whatever the case, the place of humans within wildfire regimes is often recognised today and fuel is more often actively managed in order to prevent fire deficits. One approach is to prescribe controlled burns. But also the allowing of unplanned fires to burn within certain set limits continues to be an essential element in a wildfire management regime that is not based on the misapprehension that nature can be kept free of fire.

Resilient nature

The situation is different in the densely populated Netherlands, however, where opponents will argue that there is no room for unplanned fires. But if we take a look at what is already happening in this country, in this case with water management, we see that it is in fact possible to make room for fire. This has been done in the ‘Room for the river’ programme with respect to the ‘natural process’ of flooding. Some parts of the river landscape are planned in such a way that they will flood when necessary, and water safety is combined with other functions such as nature development, recreation and clay extraction.

The latest vision document for national governmental nature policy calls this ‘resilient nature’: nature that not only enjoys public support, but also ‘in turn, is allowed room by society to follow its own dynamics’. This policy aligns with the fairly recent shift in scientific ideas: ecologists have swapped a static understanding of nature (‘nature in balance’) for a more dynamic one (‘nature in flux’). ‘Natural disturbances’ such as wildfires were long viewed in a negative light but are now incorporated into an ecological understanding of nature, where they now ‘belong’. This has brought a greater willingness to look at the ecological impact of wildfires, and to not necessarily label them as bad.

Visions of nature

What American fire management and Dutch water management practices show is that the idea of letting wildfires burn might actually not be so crazy. Whereas in our past thought and practice, fire was kept out of nature, fire is increasingly part of what we view as nature, and – in the case of the United States – it is once again playing a key role in ecosystems.

What the two examples also show, however, is that this thinking is rooted in more profound ideas about what nature is, and that there are other interpretations. These different visions of nature often underlie conflicts in society about nature management, such as the conflict about the Oostvaardersplassen. However, discussions about what constitutes ‘real nature’ (such as the Oostvaarderplassen debate) often end in a strategic game involving framing and other conversation techniques, and are therefore of little significance.

We therefore need to work towards a dialogue on wildfire management based on pragmatic considerations. That’s because the two examples have also shown that there are clear advantages to letting fires burn. At the same time, administrative decisions do need to take account of possible drawbacks, such as poor air quality and adverse environmental impacts. But what we need to discard is the notion that wildfires are by definition bad.