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How decades of stopping forest fires made them worse

Can burning forests on our own terms help mitigate the damage?

1910’s Big Blow Up remains one of the most disastrous wildfires in US history. Hurricane-force winds fanned and threw embers for miles. Full, flaming trees became dangerous projectiles as they were reportedly torn from the ground. After two days, 3 million acres throughout Idaho and Montana had burned. The devastation had a lasting effect on the United States and shaped US forestry policy for the next century. But it also created a deep misunderstanding of what fire means to a forest.

A century of fire suppression has reshaped our forests. The floor is littered with material that is dense, dried, and dead. Now, climate change is highlighting why that’s a problem. Increasingly hot, dry weather has resulted in a longer, more dramatic wildfire season, and the forests are ready to ignite. The United States is struggling to keep up with the blazes year after year, so scientists and Indigenous people are pushing to bring back a centuries-old practice: burning the forests on our own terms, through prescribed burning.

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