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Old methods for battling forest firest are due for change.

Byline: ROY KEENE For The Register-Guard

A HUGE CONFLAGRATION, burning in Southern Oregon's wilds, passed over my cabin. Without cutting away vegetation, setting sprinklers, and deploying firefighters, the cabin would have burned.

As humans have always done, I reacted first with fear, then awe. Covering nearly a half million acres and threatening a dozen towns, the Biscuit Fire is, indeed, awesome. As a forester who's spent 20 years studying how fire shapes forests and management, I've now been up close and personal. My encounter with this blaze makes it difficult for me to continue regarding fire solely with scientific dispassion. It's easier now to understand how our social and economic fears, media hysteria, and the predictable political reactions obscure a prudent assessment and response to forest fires.

Monster fires manifest themselves as supernatural forces. Pit as many people, machines, and dollars against them as you like; they will remain outside the limits of human control. When battling big blazes on hot, windy days, firefighting simply becomes an expensive spectator sport. Fact is, although 6,500 people are giving Biscuit their best, it won't be "controlled" until the rains come.

Forest fires are as unpredictable as they are uncontrollable. When a lightning strike in the wilderness first ignited the Biscuit Fire, the Forest Service was confident that it could "keep an eye on it and see what it does." Equally reluctant to admit that anything is outside human control, forest managers continue to prescribe logging as a fire prevention panacea.

Logging's inability to control forest fires was witnessed by our research foundation in the wake of the Montana burns during the mid-1990s.

We visited partially logged stands of trees that, in spite of pre-fire thinning, had thoroughly burned. Logging had created canopy openings that allowed understory growth to flourish, dry out, and carry the fire. A surprising number of thinned stands suffered comparatively greater tree mortality and soil damage than the adjacent, unentered forest - typically stands with sparser, moister understories and lighter burns. We were reminded of a saying by old time foresters that "to slow a fire, you need to run it up into the (unlogged) woods." Clear-cuts, touted by the timber industry as a fire control measure, also failed to perform as predicted. Having grown back into dense, single story brush fields and plantations, many cut over units we reviewed had burst into flame rather than halted fire. Slash from these heavily logged units also transferred heat and fire into adjacent forest understories and canopies. It was easy to see how, historically, logging's leftovers have fueled America's most lethal forest fires.

As forest managers continue to practice fire suppression, climate warming works against them. As Western forests warm, more vegetation grows during milder winters and dries out quicker in earlier, warmer summers. Flammable biomass accumulates faster and increased moisture competition stresses older, established trees - increasing their susceptibility to insects and diseases. Insistence on making the reduction of the non-merchantable biomass "pay for itself" leads to logging larger, fire resistant trees and adds more fuel to the forest.

The old thoughts and ways regarding reducing forest fires are ripe for change.

Start with admitting that we can't prevent or control every forest fire. Consider restricting firefighting to extinguishing controllable blazes and defending defensible structures. Expect people living in the forest to create fire resistant habitats, disclaim their "rights" to fire protection services, and share costs when necessary. Pressure politicians to redirect firefighting funds toward projects that employ workers to cut, lop and ground excess fuels instead of sponsoring more commercial logging.

Roy Keene of Eugene is a forestry consultant and the volunteer director of Public Interest Forestry, a nonprofit organization promoting restorative forestry.
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Title Annotation:Columns
Publication:The Register-Guard (Eugene, OR)
Article Type:Column
Date:Aug 25, 2002
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