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This story was originally published online by OnEarth magazine.
Last year, as hot, dry conditions fueled blazes across the West, nearly 10 million acres of US land were burned in what ended up being one of the costliest and most destructive wildfire seasons in the nation’s history. In the middle of all that, the US Forest Service, which manages nearly 200 million acres of public land, didn’t do itself any favors when it reversed nearly two decades of national policy and ordered an “aggressive initial attack” on all blazes within the agency’s jurisdiction, no matter how small or remote.
This year, it appears the agency is moving back toward what ecologists and fire scientists have considered the best practices for almost 40 years now: fires that are sparked in remote wilderness, where they aren’t hurting anyone, should be allowed to burn. That’s because fire, as a natural part of the environment, is good for the ecosystem. Some essential animal and plant species actually thrive in fire-ravaged landscapes, and by thinning out excess timber and clearing out dry underbrush, small forest fires can help prevent large and deadlier blazes in the future.
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