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To take up the torch.

The Secretary of the Interior takes a look at the hidden risks of fire exclusion, and proposes a new approach to returning flame to its rightful place in western forests.


The mountain seems an unlikely place for such a conflagration. Its unburned flanks are covered only with scraggly patches of pinyon-juniper and Gambel oak rooted in open expanses of red rock and dirt. Hardly a forest, and legally it isn't: When they drew the boundaries of the nearby White River National Forest in 1900, foresters didn't bother to include these scrubby slopes.

Yet shrublands like these are what really ignited the great fire summer of 1994. Granted, it was an unusually hot summer of clear skies punctuated by dry lightning, but in these desert lands, drought is no stranger. It was other forces - human forces - that transformed these arid lands into a landscape of fiery destruction.

I witnessed those forces firsthand. One week before the fatal blowup at Storm King, I joined a fire crew on the Bunniger Canyon Fire, burning just north of Grand Junction. A helicopter set us on a razorback ridge to dig a fire line across a slope where the fire had burned down from the mesa top. We anchored the line on a dusty slope where widely spaced junipers grew, yet as we moved into the drainages, thick clusters of Gambel oak and Utah service-berry surrounded us everywhere. Often the growth forced us to stop, put down our shovels and Pulaskis, and wait for saw crews to hack through the thickets.

And it wasn't just that slope. Across the entire western landscape from the Mexican to the Canadian border, scrub trees are taking over: Junipers advance across lowland plains; doghair ponderosa fill gaps in the highland forests; spruce and fir crowd out aspen groves.

Why are our western forests and rangelands changing so dramatically? Because we have systematically removed the natural flame. Just as we wiped out the wolf that preyed on weak, sick, and overpopulated herds, we have eliminated the frequent, light-burning fire cycles that used to thin the forests of young trees, kill off the spreading juniper seedlings, and hold brush in check.

Naturalist Aldo Leopold - then an Arizona forester and firefighter himself - first recognized the extent of our impact in 1924. He observed a sharp contrast in the age grouping of Arizona junipers - ancient, fire-scarred trees that stood in a matrix of very young trees all less than 40 years old - with nothing in between. Leopold surmised that in the 1880s something kept fires from spreading after ignition:

"Previous to the settlement of the country, fires started by lightning and Indians kept the brush thin, kept the junipers and other woodland species decimated, and gave grass the upper hand with respect to the possession of the soil. . . then came the settlers with their great herds of livestock. These ranges had never been grazed, and they grazed them to death, thus removing the grass and automatically checking the possibilities of widespread fires."

Even as Leopold wrote those words in 1924, the U.S. Forest Service had begun a campaign to exclude fire across the continent. Sparked by the fires of 1910 in the northern Rockies and prodded by Washington, the Forest Service took up fire suppression with a vengeance. Smokey Bear urged prevention at all costs. Airplanes that had dropped paratroopers and bombs during World War II now spawned smokejumpers, fire retardants, and chemicals, all with the target of pinching out every fire by 10 a.m the next morning. It was an effective campaign. So effective, in fact, that even today it often mutes any suggestion that in some cases fire improved the health of ranges and the forests, and that excluding fire poses its own risks.

Paradoxically, as our exclusion escalates, wildfires fight back with increasing ferocity. In the absence of fire, ground fuel accumulates and crowded forests become more susceptible to disease and insect damage. So when lightning inevitably strikes, the odds are much higher that it will flare up faster, burn hotter and higher, crown into the big trees, and decimate entire forests in what professionals call a "stand-replacing fire." These intense, densely fueled wildfires are also increasingly expensive, and unpredictable, to fight.

The only way to break this vicious cycle is to put controlled fire back onto the land. We must apply the torch to recreate the prehistoric cycles of light burning in which ground fires moved swiftly across the land, consuming brush and accumulated ground fuel, pruning out thickets, and maintaining healthy stands of forests.

In some parts of the country, land managers do regularly use controlled burns, or "prescribed fires," to boost both the local ecology and economy. In southern forests they burn back the hardwood understory to stimulate germination and growth of pines. In the Flint Hills of Kansas, ranchers burn back the tallgrass prairie each winter to promote a vigorous new spring growth. And Southern Californians, rather than letting Santa Ana winds blow wildfire out of control, have begun regular controlled burning of the chaparral lands that surround them.

Another advantage of prescribed fire is timing. Wildfires typically ignite at the worst time during the dry "fire season," when they can break out of control and when manpower and equipment are stretched dangerously thin. By contrast, prescribed fire allows us to choose weather, temperature, and season for burning, often in the spring or fall when the air is cool and moist enough to keep fire within limits. Also, land managers have time to plan and construct adequate fire breaks, or to reduce the fuel load by hand thinning around valuable sites and trees.

Yet despite mounting evidence of its benefits, prescribed fire is still not widely used in the West (see chart on page 59). From 1984 to 1993, on 270 million acres of Bureau of Land Management (BLM) lands, wild and prescribed fire burned an average of 950,000 acres per year. At that rate, a given acre of BLM land would burn once every 284 years; an acre of Forest Service land would burn once every 230 years.

The calculation is rough; some desert lands would not burn under any conditions, while old-growth forests of the Pacific Northwest burned historically perhaps every thousand years. However, the vast majority of western public lands - including rangelands, chaparral, and ponderosa forests - burned historically every 10 to 50 years. Prescribed burning should approach that historic level.

So why have we been slow to take up the torch? For many years the Smokey Bear-educated public saw only the risks of fire, not the benefits. And indeed, when a million acres of Yellowstone burned in 1988, the initial public response was highly negative. But when visitors saw the miraculous cycle of renewal - purple fields of blooming fireweed and slopes greening with lodgepole seedlings - attitudes began to change. Yellowstone taught us - in a most spectacular and instructive setting - that fires are a natural and necessary part of the ecological succession. Last October, AMERICAN FORESTS confirmed this shift in a careful poll: In California, 55 percent favor controlled burning, as do two-thirds of respondents in the Inland West.

Yet even as overall public attitudes shift toward acceptance, the site-specific objections - anywhere-but-in-my-back-yard - are hard to overcome. In Arizona, for example, the prevailing winds sometimes shift during prescribed burns on the Mogollon Rim, pouring smoke downhill into the inversion basin over Phoenix. And that triggers angry responses.

But the fact remains: We either pay now with some inconvenience, or we will surely pay a higher price later with larger, smokier, uncontrollable wildfires.

Similarly, the liability issues are quite real - no prescribed fire is ever 100 percent escape-proof, and property damage can and does occur. That fear of liability can paralyze prescribed-fire managers at any level. Yet the alternative of allowing fuel to build up to feed the inevitable big wildfire is even worse, as hillside residents in Southern California can readily testify. Our challenge is to assess those risks, and work out cooperative protection agreements with participating landowners.

Apart from these obstacles, prescribed fire is not being used with optimum effect because we in the land-management business have not been its forceful advocate. If we gave it just a fraction of the time and energy that our predecessors put into the fire-exclusion campaigns, prescribed fire would soon take its rightful place on the land-management agenda.

To bring prescribed fire up to its full potential for restoring western forests and rangelands will require concerted action at both the federal and state levels. An essential first step is for the federal agencies to elevate prescribed fire to full status in the land-use-planning process. Both the Forest Service and BLM are required by law to produce and regularly update land-management plans at the forest and district levels. Yet even a casual sampling of current plans reveals how little attention is paid to prescribed fire. Most plans do not even discuss the concept, much less undertake the serious analysis. Even environmental organizations - usually so quick to prod federal agencies with lawsuits challenging the adequacy of the planning process - seem to have entirely overlooked the use of fire as a management alternative important enough to require discussion in virtually all land-use plans.

Plans for the use of prescribed fire must include the states and their political subdivisions, for it makes little ecological or economic sense to confine prescribed fire within federal fences when the benefits could be extended to all landowners - state, federal, and private.

Fortunately, there is a good precedent right at hand. In 1911, a time when fire-suppression efforts often rifled for lack of [TABULAR DATA OMITTED] coordination, Congress enacted the Weeks Act. The Act, and successive legislation, provided matching grants to those states willing to adopt comprehensive fire-suppression plans acceptable to both the state and the Forest Service.

The time is now at hand to expand this proven federal/state partnership beyond fire exclusion to the broader objective of introducing fire into the landscape as a routine management tool. Congress could extend existing federal cooperative grants to require that states, to be eligible for existing revenue sharing, must produce prescribed-fire plans acceptable to major land agencies.

Arguably, we do not even need legislation, for the 1978 Weeks Act amendments expressly authorize the Secretary of Agriculture to provide assistance to the states to plan and organize programs of "prescribed burning." In the 17 years since those words were written into law, individual agencies have made sporadic progress, yet the development of true statewide multiagency plans remains to be achieved.

In the end, however, plans are just so much paper without the leadership and money to put them into effect. Comprehensive prescribed-fire plans require additional funds. The logical source of funding is revenue produced by the public lands. Just as rents from a building are the source of funds for the maintenance and upkeep of the asset, so the receipts from the products of the land - like timber sales and grazing fees - should be earmarked for upkeep of the land through the use of fire to invigorate and renew the range and forest resources.

Ideally, funding would consist of a single federal appropriation from public land revenues, to be apportioned among federal agencies in proportion to their land base within a given state. A unitary appropriation should also provide matching funds for states to carry out prescribed fire on state land. And there is no reason similar matching incentives should not be extended to the owners of noncommercial private land, a concept that is already used by the Department of Agriculture in other forestry programs.

A comprehensive movement that puts prescribed fire back onto the landscape, that increases the health and productivity of the land, and that reduces the risks and destruction of wildfires that do occur would be a lasting memorial to the brave firefighters who lost their lives during the summer of 1994.

RELATED ARTICLE: Wildfire Fighting: Have We Maxed Out?

The Western United States suffered an enormous wildlife season in 1994, and forest conditions throughout the region continue to forecast similar or even larger fire seasons in the future whenever suitable weather conditions occur. Millions of acres of forest are loaded with excessive fuels, and the sizes of the uniform, ready- to-burn areas are much larger than the historical pattern. Both factors virtually guarantee that individual fires will continue to grow larger and more intense. These hotter wildfires will create new levels of extreme fire behavior, environmental impact, and economic damage.

In all this, there is some evidence that no mater how serious the wildfire situation becomes, the nation's wildfire-response capacity has about been used to its maximum. The graph shows recent trends for the Forest Service's Intermountain Region (Utah, Nevada, southern Idaho, and western Wyoming). Bad fire years have occurred every two to three years (1989, 1992, and 1994). As the acres burned in these bad years rose steadily, however, fire-suppression costs (here shown in constant dollars) seemed to hit a plateau in 1992.

One possible explanation for this seems to be that in the really bad wildfire years, the capacity to gear up for firefighting has been about fully utilized. As one Forest Service official said, "There aren't any more heavy helicopters or tankers. We're using them all."

Added to the "capacity" challenge is the fact that major agency cutbacks such as the "buyouts" of 1994 (see "The Great Agency Shakeout," American Forests, November/December 1994) have reduced the number of experienced supervisors and fire managers available to the agencies. Additional manpower, in the form of military units or volunteers, is able to be used only when it can be trained and properly supervised. As experienced firefighters retire, the gap is felt most seriously in the ability to quickly expand the number of people who can be effectively used.

In the midst of the serious national debates over forest health and wildfire, the thought that we are almost certain to see larger and more damaging wildfires in future "fire years," and be unable to do much more than count the damage, is a sobering one. - NEIL SAMPSON
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Title Annotation:includes related article; wildfire prevention and control
Author:Babbitt, Bruce
Publication:American Forests
Date:Jul 1, 1995
Previous Article:Fighting fire with fire.
Next Article:PB: the smoking gun.

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