RACHEL MARTIN, HOST:
This is WEEKEND EDITION from NPR News. I'm Rachel Martin. Firefighters are still battling to contain a huge wildfire in Southern California. It threatens communities in the mountains near Palm Springs. But wildfire was once essential to the American West. Prairies and forests burned regularly, and those fires regenerated the land. But when homes and ranches expanded into the wilderness, those prescribed fires stopped happening. Now, scientists are trying to bring fire back to the wilderness to recreate what nature once did on its own. NPR's Christopher Joyce recently visited sagebrush rangeland in Montana to see how that's done.
CHRISTOPHER JOYCE, BYLINE: Rimmed by snow-capped mountains, Centennial Valley is about as wild as it gets in the lower 48. In part, that's because the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service and now The Nature Conservancy own big patches of it, and keep it wild. But one wild thing is missing: fire. For millennia, fire maintained a sea of thick, knee-high sagebrush, short grass and clusters of aspen trees. But a century ago, the government decided to stop all wildfire. That upset the balance.
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JOYCE: Now, scientists are bringing fire back by letting natural fires burn or by starting them. Nathan Korb is an ecologist with The Nature Conservancy.
NATHAN KORB: So, we're on private land adjacent to wilderness and we're trying to make the private land safe for fire, so that fire managers can allow fires to burn naturally when they get started in the wilderness.
JOYCE: So, a fire crew is removing fir trees - they burn too vigorously and can spread fire where fire managers don't want it to go - toward ranches, for example. And the firs really don't belong here anyway. They push out the sagebrush and they actually hurt the sage-grouse, the iconic bird species here. Hawks roost on the tall firs to spot the grouse in the brush below. When fires were allowed to burn naturally, the firs got burned out.
GRACE STANLEY: My name is Grace Stanley. I work for the Montana Conservation Corps, and right now we're working to thin conifers so aspens can flourish.
JOYCE: The aspen don't burn as readily. Fire managers refer to them as a wet blanket that slows fires down. Aspen trees are naturally part of this landscape.
: We typically camp. We wake up around 6 o'clock, make some breakfast, then we do a stretch circle, then we'll get on the saws from about 8 A.M. till about 5 P.M. You know, it's really exciting. It's a little hard to hear right now but that's OK.
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JOYCE: Stanley has helped start fires before. She says it scares people.
: I know that every time we've done burns, we get a lot of calls to the fire department, people saying, oh no, why would you do that type of attitude. People don't really understand that fire regenerates and it's a natural process that the Earth needs.
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JOYCE: Nathan Korb and I visit the site of a fire that burned here 10 years ago.
KORB: This is the Winslow Fire. This is a county road.
JOYCE: So, when we look up here at this rise, some of it looks burnt.
KORB: Those two patches up there is what burned severely in 2003. To the left, those smaller patches, that's ideally what we'd like to see fire doing. And those are more similar to what burned more historically.
JOYCE: And why is that ideal?
KORB: Because it creates more a diverse habitat.
JOYCE: So, you want patches basically.
KORB: Patches - different habitat needs for different species.
JOYCE: When this landscape is left to burn naturally, wildfires thin the trees and grass, keep them from getting too thick and then burning in a huge mega-fire.
GEORGE JOHNSON: My name is George Johnson and I'm a collaborative burn boss with The Nature Conservancy.
JOYCE: Johnson starts fires. He and Korb walk me up a ridge overlooking a 100-acre valley. So, this is what you guys want to burn.
JOHNSON: Yeah. That far face over there from the ridgeline towards the snow pack over there, you come down on a diagonal to the creek bottom. So, it's this mix of sagebrush base and wild rye and then the conifers that you see. So, that's the primary burn area.
JOYCE: He'll use the snowline and the wet valley bottom and a couple of dirt roads as fire breaks and wait till the humidity and wind conditions are just right. Johnson's a former smoke jumper, with over 100 jumps in his career. He says fighting fire with fire - literally - makes sense to him, but it may not seem logical.
JOHNSON: It's hard to convince people it's a good thing. They've seen too many homes go up on the news and that. And it's hard to get the message across that this has been going on for thousands and thousands of years.
JOYCE: That's what scientists like The Conservancy's Nathan Korb are trying to do - bring back fire's natural role, but in a landscape with people and livestock and homes in it. It's not easy, but the alternative, says Korb, is worse.
KORB: When we light fires, we can choose the conditions that the fires are burning under.
JOYCE: But many of the big fires now in the West are unstoppable.
KORB: They're burning under the most severe conditions, and we're not getting patches. We're getting whole landscapes that are turning black.
JOYCE: Christopher Joyce, NPR News.
MARTIN: NPR photographer John Poole traveled with Chris Joyce to Montana. You can see his photographs of the Montana wilderness that scientists are trying to save at npr.org.