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Former Firefighter Tim Ingalsbee Says Oregon Needs to Start More Fires in Order to Stop Them

“Prescribed burns” are a common practice in other parts of the country. In Oregon, however, they chafe against the interests of the timber industry.

WW presents "Distant Voices," a daily video interview for the era of social distancing. Our reporters are asking Portlanders what they're doing during quarantine.

Tim Ingalsbee believes in fighting fires with fire—something he says Oregon isn't doing enough of.

A lifelong wildland firefighter who has worked for the U.S. Forest Service and the National Park Service, Ingalsbee is executive director of Firefighters United for Safety, Ethics and Ecology, an organization whose primary goal is advocating for a more preventative approach to wildfire management.

What that mainly means is pushing for "prescribed burns"—that is, deliberately setting moderate fires in a controlled conditions in order to reduce the elements that cause wildfires to spread rapidly. It's a practice that's commonplace in other parts of the country but in Oregon chafes against the interests of the timber industry.

Instead, the state prefers aggressive suppression—a method that, as the last 10 days have shown, has its limits.

Related: 10 Dead, 22 Missing as Oregon Reels From Immense Wildfires.

It might seem ironic, a firefighter advocating for starting more fires. But Ingalsbee insists it's not a contradiction.

"If you are in wildland fire in any capacity, you don't hate fire or fear fire, you actually love fire," he says. "It's really part of our human nature. We're the only species on the planet that has this unique relationship with fire. We know how to start fires and steer fires, shelter them, feed them and avoid them where necessary.

"So if you ask firefighters what they'd rather be doing, they would say we'd rather be doing less firefighting and more fire lighting."

In a conversation with WW editor and publisher Mark Zusman, Ingalsbee discusses why the concept of prescribed burns faces so much opposition in Oregon and whether the current wildfires will change how the state manages its forests.

See more Distant Voices interviews here.