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Wildfire update.

Pick up the newspapers the past two summers, and it may seem like the West is going up in smoke. In fact, the summer blazes, fueled by a prolonged drought, have hopscotched from region to region, creating a mosaic of scorched forests and grasslands.

Says John W. Chambers, assistant director of Fire and Aviation Management for the U.S. Forest Service, "The 1988 fire season was the fourth consecutive major fire season in the U. S.

Chambers predicts that by the time it's done, the 1989 season will prove to be the fifth bad fire year in a row. An average of more than four million acres have burned in each of the past four years. Last season alone, more than five million acres went up in flames.

Yellowstone suffered the "most severe fire season on record," Chambers adds. "This year, the Southwest is experiencing something very similar to 1974, which was one of the worst fire years on record in the Southwest. "

The 1988 Yellowstone fire focused media attention on our national fire policy-the so-called "let-burn" rule in which certain fires are allowed to take their natural course under carefully prescribed conditions. In response to a firestorm of criticism, the "prescribed natural fire policy" underwent scrutiny by the nation's top firefighters. The result was a reaffirmation of the policy but a temporary ban on let-burn for the 1989 fire season.

While the conditions are clarified under which prescribed fires will be permitted to go unchecked, this summer's fires have helped warm up another hot potato. In recent years the creep of suburbia toward wilderness areas has created a migraine of a headache for our nation's fire-fighters.

By mid-July the Forest Service was reporting that a forest fire had destroyed 39 houses in an upscale development outside Boulder, Colorado, near the Arapaho-Roosevelt National Forest. (See the first-hand account by Ron Gosnell, below.) Chambers calls the Boulder blaze a benchmark fire for the Rocky Mountain area in terms of property damage.

But he added that the Boulder fire was "just another chapter" in a nationwide problem. "People want to get away from cities to natural settings," says Chambers, "but without zoning restrictions, you're already behind the eight ball. You can build some pretty well-designed houses, but if they're not zoned, you can wind up with real fire traps."

Chambers adds that the "urban-wildland interface" problem, as it is called in the bureaucratic tongue, first became a matter of concern in the early 1970s, when it was thought of as a Southern California problem alone. Now every state in the nation is at risk.

In 1986 the interface issue resulted in a national initiative to ensure cooperation among federal, state, and local fire-protection agencies. Fighting fires in structures is a highly specialized job that is the responsibility of county and local fire departments, but federal agencies have the job of preventing wildfires from reaching nearby houses.

Firefighters holding their hoses on houses will have their backs to the wilderness. "Protecting developed areas takes a lot of our firefighting capability," Chambers points out. "As a consequence, our wildland fires may get larger and more damaging. "

He suspects that homeowners in urban-wildland areas may be receiving a disproportionate share of fire protection. "More than they're paying for," he says. "We wind up with a situation where the wildlands are receiving less protection than the public has a right to expect from their taxes. "

The interface issue has escalated to an international concern. In July, six government agencies from the United States, Canada, and Mexico sponsored an International Wildfire Conference in Boston. Chambers calls the conference an "offshoot of wildland-urban interface problems and emerging concern worldwide about wildfire damage."

The interface issue and the let-burn brouhaha have kept federal agencies scrambling to put out media brushfires. In the meantime, questions regarding the long-term ecological impact of five years of drought and fires go unanswered.

Supporting this are the conclusions of an inter-agency team established in 1988 by then-Secretary of Agriculture Richard Lyng and then-Secretary of Interior Donald Hodel to review our national fire-management policy.

The review team recommended research into the impacts of wildfires on air quality. The team's final report, published in May of 1989, also called for an inventory of forests subject to intense fires and investigation of the correlation with drought cycles.

In suggesting studies into the effect of climate change on forests, the members of the review team, which included john Chambers, noted, "Prolonged drought periods may result in changes in weather patterns that have an abnormal effect on fires and cause an inability to project fire behavior accurately."

In late 1989 the Forest Service plans to initiate a 10-year research effort into the effect of climate change on forests and the impacts of forest fires on the atmosphere, including the greenhouse effect. (See AMERICAN FORESTS, November/December 1988, page 10.)

Dr. Michael A. Fosberg, a Forest Service specialist in atmospheric sciences, reports that researchers in Seattle and Missoula are studying the emissions of greenhouse gases from forest fires. But Fosberg expresses surprise that no one has done any estimates of the biomass lost from five consecutive years of major fire seasons.

Another question still needing an answer is what do the drought-related fires mean in terms of forest regeneration? Much of the area that burned in 1988 is classified as Wilderness, where no replanting is allowed. But most of those Wilderness areas were in lodgepole pine, a fire species" that regenerates well on its own.

Don Foth, a reforestation specialist with the Forest Service, estimates that 174,000 commodity-producing acres are in the process of being replanted throughout the West. Most of that is ponderosa pine and Douglas-fir, although a small percentage is lodgepole pine. Areas of lodgepole in the Shoshone and the National Forests around Yellowstone have to be replanted, Foth says, "because the fires burned so hot due to the long-term drought" that the seeds were destroyed.

Costs in the Yellowstone complex alone are expected to run $10 million on National Forest lands for reforestation, soil and streambank stabilization, and campground rehabilitation, and roughly $20 million in the National Park.

While the 1988 blazes swept through ecosystems that were primarily lodgepole pine, the 1989 fires in the Southwest concentrated on ponderosa pine, pinyon-juniper, and grasslands.

The reason for the shift, says John Chambers, was a change in the drought pattern. In 1988 the National Weather Service's Palmer index at the end of June showed extreme drought conditions throughout the northern tier of states. By the same time of year in 1989, the Palmer index had shifted to the central southwestern region.

"It is a much larger area," Chambers points out.

Again, much of the land affected is Wilderness and will not be replanted. Don Foth believes that it is "too early to predict whether there will be reforestation" efforts on the rest of the southwestern burns. "But I suspect that there will be some need," he adds. Given that ponderosa pine does not regenerate on its own as well as lodgepole pine does, the long-term ecological impact of the 1989 fires may well be much more serious.

And John Chambers is pessimistic about the outlook for the next few years. "Even if we get normal weather, the danger of bad forest fires is likely to continue," he says. "It may take 10 years to reduce the Palmer deficit. "

No one is even speculating at this point about the impact on global warming.
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Title Annotation:forest fires
Author:Davis, Norah Deakin
Publication:American Forests
Date:Sep 1, 1989
Previous Article:A national urban forests policy: it's about time!
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