What have we learned about forest fires in this incendiary year of 2000?
We already know an area of the United States the size of Massachusetts has been burned, that at least $1.5 billion of taxpayers' money (and likely more) will be spent fighting fires in the South and the West and that, despite our efforts, some forest fires won't be extinguished until autumn rain and snow falls.
I won't suggest the ideas that follow came solely from this summer's conflagrations, nor are my ideas original -- there's been a lot of thinking done on this, much of it by my colleagues at Colorado State University.
The ideas are quite simple:
Fire is inevitable, a force of nature and an integral part of an ecosystem.
Controlling wildfires before they start is safer, and cheaper, than trying to suppress them while they burn.
We need a new vocabulary to talk about wildfire, because the one we've got is outdated, emotionally charged and negative.
Let me start with inevitability. Fire requires a source of heat, a supply of oxygen and fuel. Oxygen is in the atmosphere and even if people learn not to flip cigarettes and to put out their campfires, lightning still can be a source of ignition.
But we can remove the fuel.
Nature has done this effectively over hundreds of thousands, even millions of years. Fires burned off the understory, recycled valuable nutrients back into the soil and left more room for forest growth. Most animals were able to escape fires, and the following year's growth was both succulent and nutritious, attracting ungulates like deer and elk and, in turn, their predators. Birds found a source of seeds and nests at the edges of burned patches; other creatures returned.
If we're not going to eliminate fire (we can't, and we shouldn't), then we can manage it to produce renewal, not destruction. That's the ounce of prevention: removing fuel. Remember that, for a century, our official policy has been to put out each and every fire, which has produced an unimaginable fuel load, particularly in the West. Prescribed fires -- that is, human-set, carefully controlled burns -- are a relatively recent development. While the Park Service came under bitter criticism for a prescribed burn near Los Alamos, N.M., last May, the public and media outcry overlooked the fact that the flames that destroyed numerous dwellings and threatened labs and bunkers of the Los Alamos atomic research site resulted from a "backfire" -- one lit by a firefighting team to burn off possible fuel and control the original fire.
Isn't any prescribed burn just too risky? No -- although there are alternatives. For example, mechanical thinning works -- just send workers in with chain saws and remove weak or diseased trees. But the method only works if the thinnings are hauled out and if underbrush is cleared away as well. I've spent the past several summers in Montana, Idaho, Washington, California and New Mexico comparing the effects of prescribed burns and mechanical thinning on subsequent forest fires. Prescribed burns noticeably reduce the severity of subsequent forest fires in these areas. We pay a steep price if the debris from thinning, called slash, is left behind to be consumed in an eventual wildfire. That's one of the saddest things, when we invest time and money to thin mechanically and then fail to follow through with slash removal via prescribed fire or other means.
Location and management objectives often help indicate whether mechanical thinning or a prescribed burn is the best strategy. Burns, for example, might be ideal for a roadless area, while thinning might be the better alternative in a national forest.
Where possible, prescribed fire is the preferred treatment in terms of its cost and its ecological efficiency.
Finally, a word about words. Fire "scorches," "destroys," "eliminates," "threatens," "ravages" and "eliminates" forests. These terms fit the past policy lexicon. But we lack a vocabulary for describing the good things about forest fires and still demonize them despite their intrinsic role in nature. Fires are as natural as elk, ground squirrels, pines, firs, foxes and wildflowers; they should be spoken of at least as well.
What I learned this year is that we need to reexamine an old and ultimately misguided policy about snuffing out all fires, and instead develop a reasonable set of criteria that protects people and property and yet respects North America's ecosystems in which fire plays a fundamental, critical and positive role.
Philip Omi is a former forest firefighter, professor of forest science at Colorado State University and director of Colorado State's Western Forest Fire Research Center (WESTFIRE).
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