Let forest fires burn? A black-backed woodpecker would applaud

The black-backed woodpecker, which lives in burned-out forests, is one of the rarest birds in California, and lately it has become something more: a symbol of a huge scientific and political debate over the future of fire in U.S. forests.

BUCK MEADOWS, Calif. — With long strides, Chad T. Hanson plunged into a burned-out forest, his boots kicking up powdery ash. Blackened, lifeless trees stretched toward an azure sky.

Hanson, an ecologist, could not have been more delighted. “Any day out here is a happy day for me, because this is where the wildlife is,” he said with a grin.

On cue, a pair of birds appeared, swooping through the air and alighting on dead trees to attack them like jackhammers. They were black-backed woodpeckers, adapted by millions of years of evolution to live in burned-out forests. They were hunting grubs to feed their chicks.

The black-backed woodpecker is one of the rarest birds in California, and lately it has become something more: a symbol of a huge scientific and political debate over the future of fire in U.S. forests.

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Scientists at the cutting edge of ecological research, Hanson among them, argue that the century-old U.S. practice of suppressing wildfires has been nothing less than a calamity. They are calling for a new approach that basically involves letting backcountry fires burn across millions of acres.

In principle, the federal government accepted a version of this argument years ago, but in practice, fires are still routinely stamped out across much of the country. To the biologists, that has imperiled the plants and animals — hundreds of them, it turns out — that prefer to live in recently burned forests.

Human lives are at stake, too. Firefighters die, more than a dozen in some years, putting out fires that many scientists think should be allowed to burn. Conversely, a shift toward letting more fires rage is certain to raise fears about public safety in communities bordering forests.

Scientists contend that if money were redirected from firefighting into projects like fireproofing homes, those communities could actually be made safer. But the politics of the shift would be difficult, at best.

Climate change complicates the picture. It is making wildfires more likely, essentially punching through the human effort to suppress fires. That may, in the short term, help achieve the scientific goal of having more fire…

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