The evening newscasts have been punctuated recently by stories detailing the rash of fires occurring in the western U.S., and it is frightening. Hundreds of thousands of acres are burning at a rapid pace while homes and other private property stand at risk.

The loss of 19 firefighters in Arizona earlier this summer is especially tragic. Their sacrifice serves as a jarring reminder of the danger these public heroes put themselves in and the courage they exhibit as they stand face to face with raging flames.

We all know that we should prevent forest fires: Smokey Bear has been telling us that for years. But is he right?

Should we strive to keep flames away from our forests and extinguish any fires that occur? Maybe not always.

Mother Nature has long used fire as a tool in maintaining forests. Fire clears overgrowth and opens the floor up to sunlight, fostering new growth.

Unfortunately, that threatens a growing a spreading human population now living near large swaths of forested land. Lives and billions of dollars in property in the path of a forest fire sometimes are at risk.

That’s the reality. And though professional foresters know best how to manage such lands, the public often operates under the misconception that a tree should not be destroyed as long as we can prevent it.

Just as is the case with modern agriculture, the average American is far removed from the timber industry. We are inundated with stories about the rape of natural lands, but receive little information about the proper management of our lands.

A case in point is the common statement that if one creates less paperwork, he will “save a tree.” As with livestock production, such a sentiment ignores that fact that trees are planted for pulp, and if the paper demand were not there, the tree would not be planted in the first place.

Old-growth forests, of course, are different, in that they are natural, not planted for harvest. However, we need to let nature do her work, by clearing dead trees and brush in some areas and clear-cutting in some others.

Many in the public don’t seem to understand that this is necessary in order to maintain the fragile coexistence of man and nature.

Illinois and Indiana both have national forests, and while this region isn’t nearly as prone to major forests fires as are areas of the West, there still is the potential for damaging fires, especially during times of drought.

It behooves all of us to sit back and let the professional foresters do their job. One way to help is to stop the spread of misinformation about forests and forest fires.