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Winter 2003, Volume 20.2

 
READING THE WEST

read-ing [from ME reden, to explain, hence to read] _ vt. 1 to get the meaning of; 2 to understand the nature, significance, or thinking of; 3 to interpret or understand; 4 to apply oneself to; study.

 

Forest Fires 2003

On January 16, 2003, the National Interagency Fire Center in Boise, Idaho, released its seasonal wildland fire outlook.

In the West: Nevada, Utah and Colorado, should receive enough precipitation this winter to make some improvement, although drought conditions will still exist. Drier than normal conditions are expected across most of Idaho, Montana and western Wyoming. In fact, snowpack in most of these areas is currently at 60-80% of normal…. This trend is forecasted to continue and will intensify the drought conditions that exist in those areas. Drought conditions go back five years or more in southwest Montana. The period of 1998-2002 is the driest five-year period on record. This area has essentially missed over a full year's worth of normal precipitation during this period. With seasonal precipitation running below normal over the majority of the West, spring rains will be a crucial factor determining fire potential this summer....

Southwest Area: Severe to extreme drought persists over Arizona while New Mexico drought conditions remain abnormally dry to moderate. Well over 600,000 forested acres in Arizona are infested with bark beetles, increasing the potential for timber destruction from wildfires. Across Arizona, New Mexico and western Texas, wetter than normal precipitation is forecasted for the remainder of the winter and spring, which should result in widespread drought improvement. Overall, if the long-term precipitation forecast is correct, fire season is projected to start later, be shorter and less severe than 2002….

SOURCE: http://www.nifc.gov/news/intell_predserv_forms/season_outlook.html


Healthy Forest Initiative

On August 22, 2002, President Bush announced his "Healthy Forest Initiative," at the Compton Arena, Central Point, Oregon.

…In order to have a healthy economy, we've got to have a healthy forest policy. I mean, if you have good forest policy, it will yield to a better economy. (Applause.) After all, the fires that have devastated the West create a drag on the economy. It costs money to fight these fires. It means people lose property. There's opportunity lost. No, good forest policy not only is important for the preservation and conservation of good forests for future generations, it's good for our economy.

And yet, I think we need to be honest with the American people. The forest policy of our government is misguided policy. It doesn't work. (Applause.) We need to thin. We need to make our forests healthy by using some common sense. (Applause.) We need to understand, if you let kindling build up, and there's a lightning strike, you're going to get yourself a big fire. That's what we've got to understand. (Laughter.)

We've got to understand that it makes sense to clear brush. We've got to make sense — it makes sense to encourage people to make sure that the forests not only are healthy from disease, but are healthy from fire. That's what we've got to do here in America. We haven't done that in the past. We just haven't done it, and we're now paying the price. (Applause.)

And so we're going to change the forest policy in Washington. And that's why I've got my secretaries here. They know what I know, that we've got to change the policy, starting with setting priorities, right off the bat, about getting after those areas that are dangerous— dangerous to communities, dangerous to habitat, dangerous to recreational areas. There are some high priority areas that we need to declare emergencies and get to thinning now, before it's too late. (Applause.)

And we have a problem with the regulatory body there in Washington. I mean, there's so many regulations, and so much red tape, that it takes a little bit of effort to ball up the efforts to make the forests healthy. And plus, there's just too many lawsuits, just endless litigation. (Applause.) We want to make sure our citizens have the right to the courthouse. People ought to have a right to express themselves, no question about it. But there's a fine balance between people expressing their selves and their opinions and using litigation to keep the United States of America from enacting common sense forest policy. (Applause.)

...No, I want our forests healthy, and I want our economy healthy. That's why I strongly support the 1994 Northwest Forest Plan, a plan which should allow the production a billion board feet of timber per year. (Applause.) This is a plan that was a well thought out plan. It's a plan that was put together to protect wildlife habitat, to protect recreational areas. But it's a plan that's got another dividend, besides a healthy forest. It means 100,000 more jobs for people ....

SOURCE: http://www.whitehouse.gov/news/releases/2002/08/20020822-3.html


Smokescreen

The Natural Resources Defense Council was among the many environmental groups to respond negatively to the President's plan.

Unfortunately, the plan unveiled today by President Bush is a smokescreen that misses the target in reducing this threat. Instead, the president's so-called "Healthy Forests" initiative exploits the fear of fires in order to gut environmental protections and boost commercial logging.

Instead of focusing on fire-proofing communities, the Bush plan would emphasize logging large and medium trees in remote areas of national forests which does little to protect human life and property. In fact, removing the most fire-resistant trees and building roads in the backcountry may actually increase the risk of catastrophic wildfires.

The administration is asking Congress to torch our most basic environmental protections in the guise of fire prevention. Rolling back rules for the timber industry and eliminating public participation represent yet another cynical attempt by perhaps the most anti-environmental administration in U.S. history to line the pockets of its corporate friends at the expense of public safety and our natural heritage.

SOURCE: http://www.nrdc.org/media/pressreleases/020822.asp; the Environmental Media Service lists a number of response articles: http://www.ems.org/wildfires/healthy_forests.html


Scientific Forest Management?

The White House Initiative relies heavily on the research of Dr. William Wallace Covington, Regents' Professor and Director of Northern Arizona
University's Ecological Restoration Institute. He would cut as much as 90 percent of the trees across tens of millions of acres of public land, sparing the biggest trees—which include 60 percent of the total wood. Loggers could make enough money off the downed trees to offset much of the cost.

In his testimony before the House Resources Committee, U.S. House of Representatives Hearing to Discuss the President's Healthy Forests: An Initiative for Wildfire Prevention and Stronger Communities, September 5, 2002, Covington proposed:

For protection of watersheds, critical habitat for humans and other animals and plants we have to think much bigger. Here we need to think and act at the scale of greater ecosystems—large chunks of the landscape that include not only wildlands but also embedded human communities. These greater ecosystems typically occur on a scale of 100,000 to 1,000,000 acres. The treatments are straightforward; they include:

• Retain trees which predate settlement

• Retain post-settlement trees needed to re-establish pre-settlement structure

• Thin and remove excess trees

• Rake heavy fuels from base of trees

• Burn to emulate natural disturbance regime

• Seed with natives/control exotics

SOURCE: http://resourcescommittee.house.gov/107cong/fullcomm/2002sep05/covington.htm


Historic Fires

The National Interagency Fire Center also posts a record of Historically Significant Forest fires to the year 2000.The list includes the 1910 Great Idaho fire which burned 3 million acres of Idaho and Montana, and claimed 85 lives—and which prompted the Forest Service to adopt a fire suppression policy.

 
Date  Name Location Acres Significance
October 1825 Miramichi and Maine Fires New Brunswick and Maine 3,000,000 Large Amount of Acreage Burned
October 1871 Peshtigo Wisconsin and Michigan 3,780,000 1,500 Lives Lost in Wisconsin
September 1881 Yacoult Washington and Oregon 1,000,000+ 38 Lives Lost
September 1894 Hinckley Minnesota Un-determined 418 Lives Lost
September 1894 Wisconsin Wisconsin Several Million Undetermined, Some Lives Lost
September 1902 Yacoult Washington and Oregon 1,000,000+ 38 Lives Lost
April 1903 Adirondack New York 637,000 Large Amount of Acreage Burned
August 1910 Great Idaho Idaho and Montana 3,000,000 85 Lives Lost
August 1933 Tillamook Oregon 311,000 1 Life Lost, Same area burned again in 1939
October 1947 Maine Maine 205,678 16 Lives Lost
1949 Mann Gulch Montana 4,339 13 Smokejumpers Killed
1967 Sundance Idaho 56,000 Burned 50,000 acres in just nine hours
September 1970 Laguna California 175,425 382 Structures Destroyed
July 1977 Sycamore California 805 234 Structures Destroyed
November 1980 Panorama California 23,600 325 Structures Destroyed
1987 Siege of 87' California 640,000 Valuable timber lost on the Klamath and Stanislaus National Forests
1988 Yellowstone Montanan and Idaho 1,585,000 Large Amount of Acreage Burned
1988 Canyon Creek Montana 250,000 Large Amount of Acreage Burned
June 1990 Painted Cave California 4,900 641 Structures Destroyed
June 1990 Dude Fire Arizona 24,174 6 Lives Lost, 63 Homes Destroyed
October 1991 Oakland Hills California 1,500 25 Lives Lost and 2,900 Structures Destroyed
August 1992 Foothills Fire Idaho 257,000 1 Life Lost
July 1994 South Canyon Fire Colorado 1,856 14 Lives Lost
July 1994 Idaho City Complex Idaho 154,000 1 Life Lost
August 1996 Cox Wells Idaho 219,000 Largest Fire of the Year
June 1996 Millers Reach Alaska 37,336 344 Structures Destroyed
July 1997 Inowak Alaska 610,000 Threatened 3 Villages
1998 Volusia Complex Florida 111,130 Thousands of people evacuated from several counties.
1998 Flagler/St. John Florida 94,656 Forced the evacuation of thousands of residents
August 1999 Dunn Glen Complex Nevada 288,220 Largest Fire of the Year
August - November 1999 Big Bar Complex California 140,947 Series of fires caused several evacuations during a 3½ month period.
September - November 1999 Kirk Complex California 86,700 Hundreds of people were evacuated by this complex of fires that burned for almost 3 months.
May 2000 Cerro Grande New Mexico 47,650 Originally a prescribed fire, 235 structures destroyed and Los Alamos National Laboratory damaged


Fire Defines the West

Some observers have suggested that over the years, fire has become the defining characteristic of the West. From May until September, from New Mexico and Arizona to Washington, Idaho and Montana, plumes of smoke as high as 40,000 feet punctuate the horizon as tens of thousands of acres below them burn. In 2002 some of those plumes marked huge fires of 100,000 acres or more. In Colorado, for instance, the devastating Hayman fire scorched more than 100,000 acres and cost some $40 million to fight. In Arizona, the Rodeo fire joined with the Chediski fire to burn more than 300,000 acres. And in Oregon, the Biscuit fire consumed 500,000 acres of forest, an area larger than all five boroughs of New York City, and forced nearly 17,000 to flee. The Biscuit fire ultimately cost $113 million to combat, making it the most expensive fire suppression effort in wildland fire history.

Correspondent Douglas Gantenbein, who is writing a book about forest fires in the American West, explains some of the characteristics of these recent fires.

.... The fires that raged in Oregon, Colorado, Arizona and other states in 2002 all were crown fires, the most devastating type. In these blazes the flames literally leap from treetop to treetop. They are impossible to fight. Not only can crown fires easily cross a five-foot firebreak scratched out by crews using Pulaskis, the combination ax/pick that after nearly 70 years remains the staple tool of firefighters, they have been known to hurdle rivers hundreds of feet wide.

Fires of this kind were once rare; during the 1910's and 1920's, firefighters deployed by the nascent forest service often could walk right up to a fire and beat it out with a blanket. Today fires commonly shoot flames 400 feet into the air, can generate temperatures of 2,000 degrees Fahrenheit and devour perhaps 35 tons of fuel an acre in just an hour. The winds they create may reach 100 miles an hour. Worse, these fires can utterly destroy forests of Ponderosa pine, the dominant tree species in the West. A big, beautiful tree that creates majestic, open forests that offer shade and sun in equal measure and provide habitat for dozens of birds, mammals and insects, the Ponderosa is supremely adapted to coexist with fire. But only frequent, small fires, not infrequent, huge ones.

...[It is uncertain]...whether the West's fire problem can be solved with human intervention. To simply let fires burn is intolerable: the environmental havoc they cause is tremendous, endangering animals such as the Mexican
spotted owl and bighorn sheep in addition to threatening the vast Ponderosa pine ecosystem. Then there is the human cost, as people's lives are disrupted and property destroyed or damaged. But no amount of dollars or firefighters can stop a big fire once it gets moving, making the summer's showy firefighting efforts increasingly fruitless....

SOURCE: Douglas Gantenbein, "Burning Questions," Scientific American, 287:82-90 (Nov. 2, 2002)


Fire Storm

Not all scientists agree with Covington. Charles W. Petit described the disagreements among forest scientists for U.S. News & World Report.

…A century of misguided fire suppression and overlogging has allowed thickets of young trees and brush to choke the forests and turn the American West into a tinderbox. But what to do about the overgrown forests is another matter.

…[I]t is a mistake to peg it all as a battle between logging industry shills and conservationists. Many of the ecologists and foresters who long to see western forests thinned by ax and saw seem as zealous as any tree-hugger in their regard for nature. Extensive thinning, they insist, would spare the forests from wildfires so fierce that they blowtorch everything, including old-growth trees. It would open the way to a more natural regime of low-intensity blazes and improve wildlife habitat.

"I want to see natural forests, period," says retired U.S. Forest Service wildlife biologist George Gruell. "People just don't realize how it used to look up here." During a career in forests in Wyoming, Nevada, Montana, and other western states, he compared photos from the mid- to late 19th century to the same spots now.... Where trees were once mostly large, widely spaced, and interspersed with meadows, his photos of the same scenes now show mostly small to medium-sized trees, crowded and mired in brush.

His prescription: Cut out most of the small trees and brush, and then, with the fuel load reduced, burn off remaining low growth in deliberate or "prescribed" burns. Leave the biggest, oldest trees, essential to such animals as spotted owls.

…[T]he foes of aggressive thinning...say there is little evidence that it would suppress fire for long, because brush and saplings would quickly regrow. They argue that costs could be thousands of dollars per acre, adding up to many billions for all public lands, even after selling some trees for lumber or fiber. Many fear loggers would push to take ever bigger trees. Ecologist Don
Erman of the University of California-Davis says, "The reason there is so little old growth is not because of fire policies but because of the history of logging. And the problems are not going to go away by opening the hills to more logging."

Inevitably, many experts find themselves caught in the middle, like Stephen Pyne, a wildfire historian at Arizona State University. The forests, he agrees, are overgrown. But he distrusts simple answers, because some forests are more fire-tolerant than others. Some might need thinning before they could burn; in others, controlled burns alone could work; in still others, nature might be left to take its course. He says the White House plan offers few specifics beyond an end to current restrictions and could set off a rush to large-scale logging. Yet nature can't always restore itself, he says. "The extreme positions come close to saying the only way to save the forest is to destroy it, either by hauling it out in trucks or letting it incinerate itself."

SOURCE: U.S. News & World Report, 133 (9 Sept. 2002): 64-66.


Why Are Things So Bad?

The editors of Scientific American have concluded that the annual ritual of horrific wild fires in the West may be a consequence of Smokey Bear doing too good a job. Decades of well-intentioned fire suppression, combined with recent droughts, have left vast tracts of forests littered with tinder-dry brush and matchstick-like trees. Of 470 million acres of federally managed forests, 190 million or so are said to be at risk of catastrophic fire.

The editors have also concluded that efforts to hack away underbrush and to phase out routine fire suppression are welcome but incomplete.

…The root cause of the problem is not an overly zealous desire to save trees, but frenetic development. The conifer-covered slopes of the West are magnetic for homesteaders. Builders slip more and more houses among the picturesque trees, creating what fire managers call the urban-wildland interface. According to the National Interagency Fire Center in Boise, Idaho, fire-susceptible areas hold 10 times as many homes today as 25 years ago.

Although houses can be built using noncombustive materials and modified with other fire-smart practices, they nonetheless create a need for fire suppression that never used to exist. In certain areas, the situation has become untenable: natural fires cannot be left to run their course, the underbrush builds up, and eventually the forest explodes in an uncontrollable blaze.

It is hardly the first time that humans, in our desire to be close to nature, have destroyed the very thing we seek. Fortunately, new policies can reduce the cost in lives, property and environmental conditions. As state and local planners consider what and how to build, they must recognize the inevitability of fire in the same way that other regions prepare for floods, earthquakes or hurricanes. Communities such as Malibu, Calif., already have strict building codes in place. Insurance companies can require more discrimination from their clients in site choices.

Stronger steps, including bans on building in fireprone areas, may eventually prove necessary. Some people might regard preventive measures as overbearing government interference. But unless we start making these hard trade-offs, we may find ourselves continuing to fiddle while the West burns.

SOURCE: The Editors, "Land of Fire," Scientific American, 387:10 (Nov. 2002)
For an excerpt from Norman Maclean's 1992 book Young Men and Fire, an exploration of the 1949 Mann Gulch tragedy, in which 13 firefighters were overrun by a Montana blaze, visit: http://www.press.uchicago.edu/Misc/Chicago/500616.html
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