Did you get the memo? You know, the one from the U.S. Forest Service honcho Tom Tidwell that reverses the total fire suppression policy that was, essentially, a reversal of a 17-year policy that allowed some fires to burn. Confusing? Yeah, it is. Long gone are the days when the clear-cut message of Smokey Bear played out at the policy level. But wildfires really were never as simple as Smokey first made them out to be almost 70 years ago and things have gotten more complicated since. Here’s a very quick primer explaining why:

Keeping it “natural”

As long as there have been trees in North America, there have been forest fires. Humans came along several thousand years ago and increased the frequency of fires, especially in the West, by using mostly low-level burning to manage the land. That made the wild lands even more fire-adapted. Then, a mere 200 or so years ago, came the Europeans with their total fire suppression idea and fires were outlawed and stopped at all costs. That naturally turned the fire-adapted landscapes into a bunch of ticking time bombs. Now when fires finally ignite (by lightning, accident, or arson), they can be far hotter and more devastating. Oops.

Nature in flux

Add to the above very brief history the fact that the climate of the West is getting drier — and forecast to remain on that trend as the global climate changes — and the fire situation gets downright dire. Here is how the drying forest syndrome was explained to me by Forest Service foresters: droughts weaken trees, bark beetle infestations explode and kill the trees. Dead trees clog the forests waiting for a summer electrical storm to trigger a massive wildfire. Ka-boom. It happens every summer somewhere in the West.

PHOTOS: Western Wildfires

Burning down the house

Complicating things even more is the fact that Forest Service lands have become riddled with private properties. For decades people have been building homes deeper into the woods, which is nice, except that wildfires have no respect for private property. Forest homes become little more than neat piles of fuel when a fire sweeps through. This makes it very hard for the Forest Service to let any but the most remote fires burn, even if they are breaking the bank to do it.

There’s a lot more to this matter than I can ever squeeze into a blog post, of course (so you can just hold your horses if you were about to comment on some detail I left out). The bottom line, I think, is that the current flip-flopping of fire policies just reflects the conflicted situation on the ground. About all we can do is to keep following the advice of another bear, the one who lived in a 40-acre wood and “Think it over, think it under.”

Image: Iconic Smokey Bear and his once simple message about forest fires (image courtesy of USDA/USFS)