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The wildfire fiasco.

In our zeal to control nature, we may have pushed her out of control. And now we're taking the heat. Where to from here?

As I raked pine needles at our family cabin on California's Stanislaus National Forest last Labor Day, somebody sponged the blue sky with dishwater. A wash of wispy gray. Then, an hour later, a tarnished, glowering halo where the sun was supposed to be. A flurry of falling ash surrounded me.

That night, with my son-in-law, I drove from Pinecrest to a nearby promontory overlooking the gaping Stanislaus River canyon. The lower Sierras were ablaze--undulating orange peels of almost shocking intensity. The Ruby fire, 11 miles down-canyon, was headed our way. But as I was to discover in an intensive scan over the next six weeks, the Ruby was more than just another forest fire here in the West.

Indeed, it symbolizes a rapidly intensifying wildfire crisis in which fuel loads are dangerously high, huge numbers of homes are easy prey, and far more attention is given to fire suppression than to fuels reduction through prescribed burning and other means.

How bad is the situation? I've been tramping these forests for more than 60 years, and this is the worst I've seen it.


Early that afternoon, my friend Dan Ward, a fire officer for the California Department of Forestry (CDF) in Sonora, had received a terse transmission from a fire lookout: "I see a smoke in Middle Fork!"

Suddenly Dan was racing Code 3 in his fire rig, heading into a rattling dry, incredibly thick matting of forest fuels: duff, manzanita brush, bug-killed trees, and explosive ponderosas. Teaming up with Forest Service incident commanders Gary Cone and Bob Kress, Ward found himself in a wildfire "as extreme as you can get. It was exploding upslope in westerly winds, and by 5 p.m. 80- to 100-foot pines were flaring to 300 feet," he recalls. Alarmingly, green trees, badly stressed by a six-year drought, were burning faster than dead ones.

Hundreds of firefighters poured into the tinderbox over a single, fuel-choked road as air tankers and helicopters dropped retardant and foam. Working through the night as operations officer, Ward ordered his crews to backburn the flanks. Using flares and drip torches, they set fires along the few roads in the area, then let them burn toward the main blaze, thus turning the roadside into protected firebreaks. Several singed engines attest to the hazards of that operation.

When I arrived on-scene next morning, Forest Service, California Department of Forestry, and other agencies had set up an ICP (incident command post) in one of the few clearings within miles. The place reminded me of a Civil War battleground: Exhausted firefighters sprawled in dead sleep after a furious 14-hour battle. Bulldozers, engines, and tankers lumbered back and forth from the fire. A huge outdoor food operation was going full blast. And omnipresent TV crews were cajoling photo ops and sound bytes.

Fortunately, cool air from the upper Sierras that first night had acted as a huge brake at the fire's front, giving crews a chance to "line" the fire (surround it with fire trails). Hence it was now near containment.

The 3,500-acre Ruby fire, started by "one damn cigarette butt," involved 1,900 firefighters and ran up a bill of $1.6 million, to say nothing of huge timber and land-restoration costs.


Distressingly, the Ruby was small potatoes on the western wildfire scene last year:

* In California, fire crackled along a string of chimney-like canyons in the Sierras, often scorching 10,000 or more acres. The CDF alone responded to 7,800 state wildfires.

* The $18 million Cleveland fire on the Eldorado National Forest roared up American River canyon, devastating timber, taking out 27 structures, claiming an air tanker and its crew, and nearly igniting the fuel-and population-clogged Lake Tahoe basin.

* Near Redding, the Fountain fire, suspected to be the result of arson, careened through state lands, gobbling 64,000 acres as it destroyed more than 300 homes.

* On southern Oregon's Winema National Forest, the Lone Pine fire near Klamath Falls blackened 30,000 acres through prime stands of ponderosa.

* Idaho tallied a whopping 257,000 acres on a lightning-caused fire hot enough to produce "hydrophobic" glass-like soil that can no longer absorb water.

Additional wildfire events in other western states brought the season's wildfire tally to a staggering 2 million acres.

Why so many wildfires? Why so hot, so destructive? Will last winter's heavy snows help this year? What's being done to curb the wildfire monster?

Late one night last summer, as I camped with my grandson on the Winema, the skies near Crater Lake glowed with yet another wildfire. I restlessly monitored its progress, pondering those questions.

Several thousand miles and more than 30 interviews later, I can only communicate my alarm over what I now call the western wildfire fiasco. Tracing its origins and laying out some wildfire-fighting pluses may help us to grasp some of the basics of the problem we face. But the bottom line, I believe, is that we have a monumental dilemma on our hands.


Flip the calendar back to 1910, when enormous fires billowed out of Montana and Idaho--the Great Northern Rockies Fire. It claimed 3 million acres of prime conifer timberlands, just when the Forest Service was being organized.

Suddenly the agency had a mission, a purpose, an enemy. As Harry Fitz, a Montana history professor, explains it, "The fire put fire itself on the defensive. It foisted on America the European concept of a fireproofed forest, and instilled in forest managers a Canute-like determination to stop nature in its tracks."

Thus natural fire, a condition repeatedly described by pioneers trekking our forests on their westward migration, was on its way to being snuffed out 80 years ago.

Move ahead to 1933, when a colossal firestorm called the Tillamook Burn, consumed 13 billion board-feet of prime timber in Oregon, costing three billion Depression dollars in lost wages alone. The timber industry took horrendous losses, and the battle lines against forest fire were firmly drawn. In 1943 came Smokey Bear and presently a public taught to believe that forest fires were bad. Period.

During the 1970s, foresters began talking about "fire ecology," in which naturally started forest fires "scrub" the understory of excess fuels, protect the healthiest trees, provide wildlife habitat, and insulate the forest from major burns. But few paid serious attention.

As for just letting wildfires do their thing, fire officers warily remember the Yellowstone fires of 1988, when several lightning fires that were allowed to burn got away and eventually ripped through 1.3 million acres of overfueled forests.

Meanwhile, a subtle but deadly process had begun. As fire after fire was extinguished, grass, brush, and small trees slowly began clogging the understory with a continuous "ladder" of fuels leading toward the crowns of the highest trees. Add the recent six-year drought, which promoted massive bug disease and downed millions of trees, and today you have the long-term fire disaster that's unfolding today.

Fire officers now confide that we're talking about fires potentially so numerous, so intense, they would be beyond control.


To meet the growing challenge, the Forest Service has developed the largest and most effective wildland firefighting organization in the world:

* 1,500 engines, plus countless brush rigs, crew carriers, bulldozers, tankers, and command vehicles; 10,000 available firefighters, including nearly 400 smokejumpers; 90 available aircraft; and an annual operations budget of $186 million.

* Electronic airborne technology including infrared cameras that look through smoke to accurately spot firelines.

* An emerging foaming technology in which soapsuds-like chemicals stick to trees and structures for up to three hours, using one-tenth the water that firefighters would normally use. (On the Ruby fire, a new interagency "foaming task force" effectively created long-lasting wet lines along the fire's flanks.)

* An unsurpassed incident command system that cuts across federal and local boundaries and instantly congeals firefighters into one cooperating, potent force.

* A sense of training, duty, and dedication among all agencies that combines mission (put out the fire) with an esprit de corps (let's do it together) unequalled in civilian life. Obviously, the timber commodity needs protection from wildfire. As do homes, wildlife, watercourses. So naturally we put out the fires.

But now another viewpoint intervenes. It embraces fire ecology and emerging concepts of the new ecosystem-management philosophy, recently mandated for the entire National Forest System.

On northern California's Plumas National Forest, an outspoken 31-year fire officer and incident commander, John Maupin, describes a present-day western forest literally woven with "jackstraw" piles of dry, wind-downed and bug-killed timber. A forest laden with highly flammable dead branches ("ladder fuels"). And ground thickly matter with duff (needles and other debris).

"Because we have suppressed fires so vigorously, we have created a fuels Frankenstein in much of the West," Maupin claims. "We're facing one of the most serious fire decades in history."

The Forest Service is using prescribed burning--controlled fires started by burn crews to reduce the understory fuel load, thus simulating natural fire--but the task is immense. "We have 1.2 million acres here on the Plumas; we're treating five, six thousand acres per year. At that rate we're never going to catch up," Maupin laments.


With an increasing number of fire authorities conceding that we may now be looking at "the fires of the future," it appears that the Forest Service and other agencies face the probability of a colossal, worsening firestorm scenario.

As for last winter's heavy snows, Arnold Hartigan of the National Interagency Fire Center advises, "Even if it snows until May 1, we can still have major wildfires," citing a heavy new crop of grass and brush that will quickly dry.

It now appears that Yellowstone's and last summer's devastating fires may be patterns for what's ahead. Likely targets? Valuable timber, entire watersheds, towns, and more disasters like Oakland (3,600 homes and apartments lost in 1991).

It also appears that prescribed burning (both naturally and intentionally lighted), with selective thinning and fast removal of burned and diseased trees, are the most viable options to reduce fuel load.

Despite the risks of getaway fires, the prescribed-burning wheels are beginning to turn, I found:

* In Montana, the Forest Service allowed 47 lightning-ignited fires to burn in specified backcountry wilderness areas last year, under "prescribed" conditions.

* On New Mexico's Lincoln National Forest, prescribed burning is tied directly to ecosystem management. Says Dick Edwards, who manages the effort, "Our whole program is to get back to where we can reintroduce fire into the ecosystem."

* On Idaho's Boise National Forest, fire officer Steve Raditz reports that some 1,000 acres of understory fuel reduction fires were set in 1992. That number may climb to 10,000 acres.

* In California's Yosemite National Park, fire officer Steve Underwood reports that 28,000 acres of understory fuels have been intentionally set ablaze, and another 49,000 acres of lightning-caused fires have been allowed to burn since 1970.

* And in Oregon's Blue Mountains, one of the most heavily fueled ecosystems in the U.S., a proposed "management-ignited" burning program affecting some 355,000 acres is slated to begin next year, says regional fire officer Gordon Schmidt.

Meanwhile, the Nature Conservancy is leading the way in prescribed burning by a private organization--more than 9,000 acres burned in the U.S. in 1990-1991.

All this is good news. But unfortunately it's but a drop in the bucket. If only we could have taken seriously a little item that appeared in the Feather River Bulletin, published in Quincy, California, on Plumas National Forest, back in 1918:

"If the Forest Service were to adopt the policy of burning off the ridges in the early spring, this would eliminate in great measure the possibility of fire spreading over any great areas, and would give the firefighter an unmeasurable advantage."


Despite our hopeful beginnings to replicate the fire ecology dynamic we have so decisively erased from the ecosystem, we are faced with three undeniable realities.

First, we Americans have innocently but incorrectly labeled fire as an enemy of the forest, and have fought it at nearly every opportunity. We who constantly use forest products have unknowingly encouraged massive fire suppression for the protection of a commodity we demand.

Second, by suppressing practically every wildfire, we have unknowingly encouraged huge understory fuel buildups while perverting fire's natural "scouring" process, thus transforming our western forests into explosive fireboxes.

And third, hundreds of thousands of us have moved into the wildfire interface, seemingly oblivious to the danger of fire.

Where from here? No one I talked to seems clear on that. We can only hope for the best, encourage prescribed burning and thinning, try seriously to reintroduce fire ecology into our new ecosystem matrix, and begin protecting our western homes against wildfire.

The painful realization that the remedy may not lie with more firefighting capability but rather with massive fuel reduction may be a tough pill for the Forest Service to swallow. The question is, do we still have time to swallow the pill? Or must we take other measures?

Fireline Facts


Fast initial attack on wildfires is the ticket for the California Department of Forestry's helicopter firefighting fleet, the world's most advanced.

Acquired as government surplus rotorcraft and reconditioned for $500,000 each with the latest technology, these strategically headquartered choppers can be on-scene anywhere in California within 30 minutes. Their potent punch: a highly trained fire crew of six, plus a "Bambi bucket" that drops 330 gallons of potent foam.

As a money-saving move in almost-broke California, most of the Super Hueys are staffed by gung-ho inmates from the Department of Corrections. They lift off only after 64 hours of intensive training, and less than two percent "walk away."

"They get jazzed up," reports the CDF's Ron Cohn. "We pump 'em up because this is a tough business."


Virtually all of the western United States contains seriously "overfueled" forests, and many such areas are now populated by thousands of city-weary people who have thought little about wildlife protection.

Some of the most hazardous areas, where homes interface dangerously with forests, are shown here.

ARIZONA: Homes around Prescott National Forest.

CALIFORNIA: Lake Tahoe basin (including the Nevada portion), the "chimney" canyons of the Sierras, and the greater San Francisco Bay Area. Serious wildfires could occur almost anywhere in the state.

COLORADO: The entire populated eastern base of the Rockies from Pueblo to Fort Collins.

IDAHO: Wildfire interface settlements around Boise and Coeur d'Alene.

MONTANA: Areas around Missoula and Helena.

NEW MEXICO: Homes around Lincoln National Forest near Alamogordo and Ruidoso.

OREGON: The Cascades from Medford north, and retirement hamlets around Bend.

WASHINGTON: The greater Spokane and Wenatchee areas.

Fore more specific wildfire information about your community, consult your nearest state forestry or Forest Service office.


A vivid account of the death of 12 Forest Service smokejumpers on Montana's 1949 Mann Gulch fire has sold 120,000 copies and is focusing important new attention on wildfire behavior.

Young Men and Fire by Norman Maclean (University of Chicago Press, 1992, $19.95), is highly recommended.

If you'd like to see Mann Gulch, you can drive 17 miles north from Helena, Montana, on Interstate 5, then turn right and go two miles to Holter Lake, where an excursion boat ($6) will take you upstream to the site. A dozen commemorative white crosses can still be seen.
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Title Annotation:Burning Issues; includes related article
Author:McLean, Herbert E.
Publication:American Forests
Date:May 1, 1993
Previous Article:The future of forestry: two views from the top.
Next Article:The year they firebombed the West.

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