Should Wildfires Be Fought So Aggressively?

An airplane drops flame retardant on a slope Sunday, April 27, 2008, in Sierra Madre, Calif. A wildfire that broke out in a popular hiking area blackened the steep slopes of foothills outside Los Angeles and led to evacuation orders for residents of about 550 homes, authorities said Sunday. (Image credit: AP Photo/Ric Francis)

Anyone watching from afar as fires rage in Southern California may wonder why people live in fire-prone areas. Another question that's starting to spread like wildfire: Should such fires be fought so aggressively, often at great financial expense and at the risk of firefighters lives? Now there are even questions about environmental side-effects to firefighting.

Nature should take its course, goes one longstanding argument; fighting fires only delays the inevitable and sometimes makes future fires worse.

Now many experts are beginning to doubt the effectiveness and question the side-effects of the chemical fire retardant most commonly used to fight wildfires. It contains ammonia and can kill fish in streams, according to an article today in The New York Times. "It's fairly well known that it's toxic to aquatic organisms, to fish," said Sue Hussar, fire management officer for the National Park Service's Pacific West region.

In fact the Forest Service is being sued in federal court in Montana to stop use of the retardant. While the chemical can be effective in some situations, critics say dropping it on an out-of-control blaze is often little more than a public relations effort.

Great view!

As for why people live in high-fire-risk regions: For many, it's less about choice than the simple fact that they were born there and work there. But scientists are finding other reasons why Californians persist in risking their safety and financial futures by building homes on dry hillsides they know might burn: People tend to overestimate or underestimate the risks of certain hazards. Risks that are familiar and well understood often cause less concern than hazards we don't understand, risk analysts say. People in general, and especially those out West, are familiar with fire, so they often underestimate or discount the risk.

And then there's the great weather and those gorgeous views.

"We can't underestimate the importance of place, weather and beauty to people," says Paul Slovic, a psychology professor at the University of Oregon. "It's important that policymakers, government officials, and insurance companies take these risk elements into account."

The people who fight wildfires are also at risk, and many have been killed in the line of duty in recent years.

An economist who analyzes all these risks, Joanne Ho a the University of Washington, says a good system of fire insurance and re-insurance for the insurance companies is a key to keeping residents and firefighters safe (that is, making smart decisions about when to fight and when to let a fire burn) and to keep fire from destroying entire economies.

May get worse

All this may warrant more analysis moving forward, as the risk is predicted to grow.

Scientists have said that warmer oceans already are associated with increased fire risk in the Western United States. When the North Atlantic warms, for example, less moisture gets carried northward from the tropics, contributing to drought in the Pacific Northwest. Another study indicated that the Southwest is poised for a 90-year drought.

"If the trend continues for the next 60 years or so as it has in the past, the degree of fire occurrence in the West could be unprecedented compared to anything in recent memory," says Thomas Veblen of the University of Colorado, Boulder.

This article is from the LiveScience Water Cooler: What people are talking about in the world of science and beyond.

Robert Roy Britt

Robert is an independent health and science journalist and writer based in Phoenix, Arizona. He is a former editor-in-chief of Live Science with over 20 years of experience as a reporter and editor. He has worked on websites such as and Tom's Guide, and is a contributor on Medium, covering how we age and how to optimize the mind and body through time. He has a journalism degree from Humboldt State University in California.