Also in Flames: Smokey Bear Approach ; as Western Fires Swept Past the 2.5 Million-Acre Toll Yesterday, Debate of Forest Management Methods Was Heating Up

Article excerpt

The 20 major fires that have consumed more than 2.5 million acres in nine states raise deep questions about how to prevent and fight such conflagrations.

How to reverse nearly 100 years of history during which the basic Smokey Bear approach of full suppression has choked forests with flammable material? How to accommodate the inexorable movement of new homeowners into the "wildland-urban interface," where shake roofs and shade trees are fuel to a hungry fire?

Such questions are inevitably controversial. They involve balancing the more natural "let-it-burn" approach with the "active forest management" (i.e., more logging) favored by President Bush and the timber industry. They include delegating authority and responsibility for firefighting among federal agencies, state and local governments, and private property owners.

And as massive fires rage out of control in Colorado and Arizona this week, they reflect the political heat of environmental protection: How to overcome what US Forest Service chief Dale Bosworth calls the "analysis paralysis" of environmental regulation and lawsuits that he says has prevented aggressive fire prevention.

On one thing experts and advocates agree: trying to snuff out all fires before they can spread has not been the best thing for nature - or even for development, particularly the retirement and vacation homes that have crept into forest areas. "For decades we've been suppressing wildfires that used to naturally thin many of our forests," says Gov. John Kitzhaber (D) of Oregon. "The unfortunate result, however, has been to raise the potential for dangerously large and intense wildfires."

Historically, ground-level natural fires regularly cleared out the dense undergrowth and crowded smaller trees that can cause catastrophic "crown fires" to leap from one tall evergreen to the next. But according to the Intermountain Forest Association (an industry group in Coeur d'Alene, Idaho), ponderosa pine forests in many parts of the West now have 10 times as many trees per acre as they did a century ago.

There's also agreement that strategically-set fires need to be part of preventing massive blazes like the ones that have forced thousands of people to evacuate their homes this week.

In recent years, the US Forest Service and other government agencies have started restoration programs involving prescribed burns as well as forest thinning. But it's a controversial policy. In a few instances, the fires have gotten out of control and destroyed private property.

Heading off wildfires today involves a mix of low- and high- tech: With financial help from a federal program, Deb Wilson and her husband, Ed Green, have been chopping the manzanita and buck brush away from their home in Wildcat Canyon outside Ashland, Ore. An hour or two away, Laura Glasscock is spending her summer alone, scanning the horizon for smoke from a remote lookout tower in the Cascade Mountains.

Meanwhile, sophisticated detectors are recording the thousands of lightening strikes that cause most wildfires, and a process called the "Wildfire Automated Biomass Burning Algorithm" is helping spot and map fires from satellites more than 20,000 miles above Earth.

It's all serious business, particularly given the state of much of the nation's forest land. Fire suppression, the woody debris left behind by loggers, and the impact of cattle grazing on federal rangeland have damaged watersheds and ecosystems, leaving them more prone to ignition. …