Many Americans are familiar with the annual wildfires that burn through large areas of the United States in recent years. These fires have burned through millions of acres of land and are fought with numerous suppression methods to keep them from spreading. We battle these fires in a variety of ways using methods known as fire suppression. Many people familiar with the fires are probably aware of the helicopters dumping large amounts of water and fire retardant over the flames to put them out or stop them from spreading.
There are other, lesser-known methods of battling fires too. One such method is known as “drawing a line” through the forest. Essentially, fire and construction workers cut down large numbers of trees in a line through the forest and then bulldoze through all of it to leave a dead zone through the forest (Blumhardt, 2020). These dead zones, once reached by the fire, prevent it from spreading further through the forest because anything that could be burned has been removed. They are quite literally a line in the forest.
Impacts of Fire Suppression
The original purpose of the Forest Service is not as common knowledge. The service was not created to protect the beauty of the forests or any environmentally friendly initiative. Their purpose, as established by Congress, was to protect valuable property: timber (Smith, 2007). The trees were a valuable resource and fires needed to be extinguished as quickly as possible to prevent more property from being destroyed. Many of the fire suppression methods we still utilize today were created as a part of this mindset – do anything to protect the property. They are simply accepted as the correct way to handle a wildfire because that is how wildfires have always been handled in the past.
Fire retardant, while effective in stopping or preventing the spread of wildfires, has negative consequences. It is a dangerous chemical that seeps into the soil and rivers and causes damage to the environment, losing intrinsic value. For example, in 2001 a Washington creek that was poisoned with fire retardant killed over 10,000 fish living in a five-mile stretch of the creek (Smith, 2007). Losing the intrinsic value of a healthy creek and living environment caused instrumental losses as well - those fish are dead and inedible by other animals including ourselves. And that is only one way that fire suppression techniques cause harm to the intrinsic value of our environment.
That is only one action of the disaster. The impacts of other fire suppression techniques, such as bulldozing, are a bit more obvious. While employing this tactic does help stop the spread of a fire, it destroys large parts of the forest in the process. The process of bulldozing kills any plant life that might have been in the dirt, requiring all the soil to be fertilized and replanted for plants to begin growing in those areas again. Those are often left to natural processes which can take decades to repair the damage that was done.
The Real Disaster
These fire suppression techniques paint a new picture. Wildfires are often only viewed through the perspective of them being the natural disaster that is destroying large acreages and threatening people’s homes. However, our fire suppression techniques are a disaster of their own, one entirely caused by us and one that has been attributed in part to the strengthening of the wildfires as time has gone on. Fires are a natural part of our ecosystem and preventing them from burning naturally only makes them worse later.
In this way, the United States assigned instrumental value to a specific aspect of the environment they were protecting. The wood had immense value to them as a building material and it needed to be protected. However, in the process of protecting that instrumental value through fire suppression, the intrinsic value of our forests has been ignored. This is ever-present in the recent wildfires. We look at only the instrumental value of things when deciding to suppress fires. They move closer to people’s homes and the gut reaction is that those homes need to be protected because they have value to those civilians, to the insurance companies who do not want to pay to rebuild them, and to others with vested interests.
Because the current fire suppression policies were instituted based entirely on the desire to prevent valuable resources from burning, no research on its effects was ever conducted at the time to support those methods. While those methods have continued to be employed, researchers have found more and more evidence supporting the idea that natural burning, not fire suppression, is far more beneficial to the environment. Current research conducted by UC Berkley has found that letting fires burn rather than suppressing them allows for a more resilient forest to grow in its place. Water is needed by all plant life and when it is all consumed by dead or partially dead plants, it is mostly wasted and causes a dry environment (Sanders 2016). When it all burns, that water is freed up for other purposes, like growing new plants for a more diverse ecosystem, as well as keeping the soil moist to prevent future fires from being so devastating.
This alternate perspective of wildfires, looking at them through the angle of fire suppression, shows that the intensifying nature of the wildfires is entirely our own doing. Preventing the fires from burning makes them burn more ferociously in the future. Dumping fire retardant over the forests destroys the soil and water supplies. Bulldozing large portions of the forest destroys large parts of the forest that will struggle to revive. All to protect the lumber.
The Anthropocentric Lens
Anthropocentrism revolves around the idea that all of nature and its resources exist for humans, being the center of everything. Through this view, only humans have any moral standing and thus have no obligation to protect the environment or other animals. When we apply this view to the fire suppression, it is easy to see why fire suppression methods were implemented. Timber is a valuable resource to humans and fires are destructive to human property and threaten their lives. Thus, extinguishing fires by any means necessary as quickly as possible is the most beneficial and ethical thing to do.
That mindset stops short of considering the full harm to humans though. Seeing fires only at the moment that they are burning is a short-sighted view that does not consider the long-term impact on humans in any way. When you consider the research showing that fire suppression makes fires burn more vigorously in the future, you run into the problem of fire suppression making fires worse in the future. More deadly fires that burn more timber ten years down the line is not an ethical outcome for our future selves.
The Utilitarian Lens
The utilitarian view contrasts that of anthropocentrism in that it assigns moral responsibility to all sentient beings – not just humans. When making decisions that affect humans, we must also consider the other animals in determining whether the decision is ethical. While doing this, we also need to weigh the positives against the negatives. That something has negative impacts on one species does not automatically make it unethical. It could still be considered ethical if the benefit justifiably outweighs the harm done.
Looking at fire suppression techniques the benefit is obvious: saving timber as a valuable resource for human use. So, the question becomes whether the benefit of saved timber outweighs the harms that fire suppression is causing to both humans and other species. Fire suppression methods have negative impacts on both humans and other animals. In 2020, four firefighters have been killed while attempting to battle the blazes (Bay Area News Group, 2020). In 2020, there were 27 civilian casualties as well, ranging from people caught in their homes to others attempting to flee (Bay Area News Group, 2020). But these fires kill more than just firefighters and homeowners in their paths.
Fire retardants sprayed over the fires also seep into the water and soil, which can kill off plant life in the soil and poison the fish and other animals that live there. Think about that Washington creek where over ten thousand fish died after fire retardants spoiled the stream where they lived. When considering the balance of impacts versus benefits, pains versus pleasures, the Forest Service fire suppression policy is in the wrong here. The impacts of fire suppression far outweigh the value being protected by them.
Strengths and Weaknesses
Each of these lenses has its strengths and weaknesses that make it easier or harder to apply to certain situations. Anthropocentrism is generally regarded as a more straight-forward and simplistic view of morality, needing only to focus on humans. It can be thought of more as a straight path of steppingstones that take you from one idea to the next as you continue to think about humans at the center of the issue. When considering fire suppression, you first consider the direct harms towards humans such as possible death. Then, consider the indirect harms, such as poisoned water supply or lower oxygen output from habitat destruction and inability to regrow – things that do negatively affect humans in the long-term.
On the other hand, the strong focus on only humans has its downsides. While ignoring plants and animals in ethical decisions seems like it would be the most glaring issue, the view when correctly applied does not ignore them entirely. Rather, the view encourages tunnel vision and ignorance. Hyper-focusing on only the direct effects on humans makes it easy to forget about and ignore the indirect effects that still negatively impact humans in both the present and future. Essentially, it is easy to stop too early when following this path. This is clear in the actions surrounding fire suppression. The Forest Service did not fully evaluate all the impacts of these techniques and are now causing harm to humans in the present day.
Utilitarianism encourages everyone to think on a grander scale while also incorporating sentient beings into the equation. Its use of a scale to balance good and bad in making ethical decisions gives a lot more leeway in coming to tough conclusions and forces us to consider all the possible impacts before concluding. Rather than only thinking about the human lives that could be lost or their homes being destroyed, we also must consider the animals that live in those forests, the fish in the ponds and rivers, and the ecosystem being destroyed by these fire suppression methods. We lose both instrumental and intrinsic value when we intentionally destroy the forest or poison the soil so it cannot regrow.
Those same strengths can also be considered weaknesses. Because discussion under this lens is so open, people can become lost in a train of thought while arguing the same point. Even though opponents of fire suppression agree that it needs to stop, they can sometimes become involved in a battle of assessing the value of the forest when that is less important than stopping fire suppression. As well, everyone sees different value in the things that surround us. Some see intrinsic value in our forests, while others see the instrumental value. It is difficult to argue under such an open view when there exists a fundamental difference in how to assess value.
When analyzed correctly, both lenses end up at the same conclusion of current fire suppression methods being unethical. These techniques cause immense damage to the forest ecosystems, including the wildlife and plants there, as well as humans in the long-term. The blame lays solely on the Forest Service and the government which controls it that continues to utilize these methods based on an outdated mandate. They need to reevaluate their decisions based on the research which has shown natural burning is more effective and considers the harm they do to the environment in the process.
The solution, however, is not to merely let the forests burn uncontrolled. The Forest Service needs to evaluate fire suppression methods more thoroughly and come up with more suitable methods for fighting fires that are more accountable to the environment (Janke, 2011). Their original mission statement of viewing forests as nothing more than the timber from the trees may be an obsolete mindset that stops far short of a fair ethical evaluation but ignoring fires and letting everything burn is not ethical either.
When we apply critical analysis to any environmental theory and follow logical steppingstones of the theory, each theory becomes a lens. They are different ways of viewing the world but should always reach the same result. Using the case of fire suppression, two very opposite theories still draw the same conclusions once we walk through the entire problem logically.
Each lens that you could analyze the world through is also a way to inject bias into the conversation, and we must be careful not to become overly biased. The anthropocentric view can be used to dismiss everything that is not human and to excuse all actions that benefit humans without analyzing anything. The utilitarian view is great for people who have high regard for animals, such as vegans, who argue that no action should ever harm an animal but can go too far with that view.
Care must be taken to ensure that our analyses of environmental impacts are not ended prematurely before all the angles and all the effects are considered. Allowing bias into an environmental discussion is just as detrimental as allowing bias into a research study – it can tear apart your argument and make it invalid. In the end, every view of the world should lead you to the same conclusion. If it does not, the analysis is not yet complete.
Bay Area News Group. (2020, October 2). Map: 31 people killed in California wildfires, 2020 season. Retrieved from https://www.mercurynews.com/2020/10/02/map-31-people-killed-in-california-wildfires-2020-season/. Blumhardt, M. (2020, August 22). Drawing a line in the forest: Cameron Peak Fire fight happening miles from the blaze. Coloradoan. Retrieved from https://www.coloradoan.com/story/news/2020/08/22/colorado-wildfires-cameron-peak-fire-status-firefighters-fighting-containment/3406885001/. Janke, A. R. (2011, December). Beyond the Blaze: Strategies for Improving Forest Service Fire Suppression Policies. Washington Journal for Environmental Law & Policy, 1(2), 310-350. Retrieved from https://digitalcommons.law.uw.edu/wjelp/vol1/iss2/3. Sanders, R. (2016, October 24). Wildfire management vs. fire suppression benefits forest and watershed. Retrieved from https://news.berkeley.edu/2016/10/24/wildfire-management-vs-suppression-benefits-forest-and-watershed/. Smith, R. K. (2007, Fall). War on Wildfire: The U.S. Forest Service’s Wildland Fire Suppression Policy and Its Legal, Scientific, and Political Context. University of Baltimore Journal of Environmental Law, 15(1), 25-44. Retrieved from http://heinonline.org.ezproxy.snhu.edu/HOL/Page?handle=hein.journals/ubenv15&div=7.