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Fighting fire with new ideas.

The situation in the western forests this summer is critical. Virtually the entire states of Montana, Wyoming, Idaho, Washington, Oregon, Nevada, and California were rated as being in "extreme" drought conditions through June. Fire dangers are high, and many of the forests are so full of dead, dry fuels that if a fire gets started, it can turn catastrophic in a very short time.

The result has been a considerable effort in Washington, led by AMERICAN FORESTS, to create legislation that could help focus forest managers on both meeting the short-term emergency and, at the same time, helping those forests return to a condition in which long-term health would be enhanced. We've explained that legislation in the Lookout section beginning on page 13, and encourage members to follow its progress in the coming weeks.

Several major questions arise about this legislation; all are critical to the work of the National Commission on Wildfire Disasters. (The Commission--appointed in late 1991 by Agriculture Secretary Edward Madigan and Interior Secretary Manuel Lujan in response to P.L. 101-286--is charged with reporting on the wildfire situation and recommending policy changes. l serve as chairman.) The questions include: What real risks are involved? Given the fact that droughts and forest fires are common problems, why is the current threat any worse than those of the past?

A major challenge lies in accurately explaining and expressing the risk involved. None of us wants to cry "wolf," but many of us are convinced this is a very serious problem.

The probability that fire will strike a given segment of forest is fairly low. Most acres, most years, do not burn. That probability is increased, however, by human activities that introduce matches and cigarettes, car exhausts, discarded glass, barbecue ashes, and power lines into a forest environment. It is also heightened by increased levels of dry fuels that catch and spread fire easily. Drought that dries out the forest obviously increases the probability of fire. In many of today's forests, human activities, added to the risk posed by lightning, boost considerably the probability of a wildfire.

What are the chances a fire will burn normally, do little permanent harm (and maybe some long-term good), and be extinguished by natural causes? In many forests today, the abnormal buildup of fuels that has resulted from past fire-control and forest-management practices just about guarantees that any fire will burn hotter and faster, be harder to control, and cause more intense damage to soils, watersheds, and other forest values than was common historically. In other words, too many forests today are too dangerous to "let burn."

And the costs can be huge. in the hills of Oakland last autumn, a fast-moving fire killed 25 people, injured 150, and destroyed 2,777 single-family homes. Almost a year later, people are still fighting with insurance companies, their lives enormously disrupted. Obviously, not all forested areas are full of houses, but many area lot more than was the case only two decades ago. The "urban-wildland intermix" is a common problem for forest managers all over the country today, and huge costs can be incurred there if a fire gets out of control. We spend huge amounts to fight fire-- $800 million by the Forest Service in 1990 alone. Those costs should be added to the losses incurred.

So is it "crying wolf" to suggest that the situation in today's forests constitutes an emergency that warrants aggressive, pre-emptive action to prevent disaster? We don't think so. People buy life insurance, not because they're likely to die within the next year but because they want to protect loved ones from the terrible impact should that unlikely event occur. Forest investments should be viewed in the same way. That logic would allow us to invest in prudent efforts to improve forests, reduce the risks involved, and give the forests a better chance to continue to provide the benefits of a healthy ecosystem.

This will not be a quick process, and it will not come without some investment. The problem has been building for years; it will take time to address. Major needs include: greatly accelerated removal of dead, dying, and overcrowded trees to allow remaining trees to regain their health; greater use of forest-health-management tools like prescribed burning in situations in which fire is needed and can be managed within acceptable risks; improved local control of development patterns in wildlands so that local fire agencies have a better chance of protecting property when inevitable wildland fires break out; and an end to federal disaster payments that help subsidize the reconstruction of buildings and subdivisions not designed to fire-safe standards.

These are some of the initial ideas being considered by the National Commission on Wildfire Disasters. If you want to know more about the Commission, its members, and its plans, or if you have issues or views you want to make known to it, please write to me at P.O. Box 2000, Washington, DC 20013. AF
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Title Annotation:innovative forest fire prevention and control techniques
Author:Sampson, Neil
Publication:American Forests
Article Type:Editorial
Date:Sep 1, 1992
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