Magazine article American Forests

Fighting Fire with New Ideas

Magazine article American Forests

Fighting Fire with New Ideas

Article excerpt

The situation in the western forests this summer is critical. Virtually the entire states of Montana, Wyoming, Idaho, Washington, Oregon, Nevada, and California were rated as being in "extreme" drought conditions through June. Fire dangers are high, and many of the forests are so full of dead, dry fuels that if a fire gets started, it can turn catastrophic in a very short time.

The result has been a considerable effort in Washington, led by AMERICAN FORESTS, to create legislation that could help focus forest managers on both meeting the short-term emergency and, at the same time, helping those forests return to a condition in which long-term health would be enhanced. We've explained that legislation in the Lookout section beginning on page 13, and encourage members to follow its progress in the coming weeks.

Several major questions arise about this legislation; all are critical to the work of the National Commission on Wildfire Disasters. (The Commission--appointed in late 1991 by Agriculture Secretary Edward Madigan and Interior Secretary Manuel Lujan in response to P.L. 101-286--is charged with reporting on the wildfire situation and recommending policy changes. l serve as chairman.) The questions include: What real risks are involved? Given the fact that droughts and forest fires are common problems, why is the current threat any worse than those of the past?

A major challenge lies in accurately explaining and expressing the risk involved. None of us wants to cry "wolf," but many of us are convinced this is a very serious problem.

The probability that fire will strike a given segment of forest is fairly low. Most acres, most years, do not burn. That probability is increased, however, by human activities that introduce matches and cigarettes, car exhausts, discarded glass, barbecue ashes, and power lines into a forest environment. It is also heightened by increased levels of dry fuels that catch and spread fire easily. Drought that dries out the forest obviously increases the probability of fire. In many of today's forests, human activities, added to the risk posed by lightning, boost considerably the probability of a wildfire.

What are the chances a fire will burn normally, do little permanent harm (and maybe some long-term good), and be extinguished by natural causes? In many forests today, the abnormal buildup of fuels that has resulted from past fire-control and forest-management practices just about guarantees that any fire will burn hotter and faster, be harder to control, and cause more intense damage to soils, watersheds, and other forest values than was common historically. …

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