Magazine article American Forests

Wildfire ReLeaf

Magazine article American Forests

Wildfire ReLeaf

Article excerpt

The wildfires that raged through the West last year may have been best captured by a picture of two elk seeking refuge in a river as the fire burned out of control all around them in Montana's Bitterroot National Forest. The image seared in American consciousness the destruction caused by wildfires. Even so, the role fire should play in our forests continues to be debated. As the talks continue and new longterm strategies evolve, a large scale tree planting campaign to restore millions of acres of damaged forests is launched.

As our 2001 wildfire season begins to look more and more like a repeat of last year's historic season, AMERICAN FORESTS, the nation's oldest conservation organization, wants individuals and corporations to join a massive tree planting effort to repair damage to millions of acres of charred forests.

The 2000 wildland fire season in the United States was among the worst in modern history. A reported 92,250 fires burned across 7.4 million acres, double the annual average of the past decade. More than half the affected forests were in five states: Alaska, Idaho, Montana, Nevada, and New Mexico.


The numbers were staggering: The month of July began with large fires in the Northwest; Great Basin, Alaska; Southern California; and the Northern Rockies, and ended with 48 big fires still burning. In August, the nation's third driest month since records were begun in 1895, dry lightning storms passed through Montana's Bitterroot Valley, starting 70 to 100 new fires a day. By August 21 the number of large fires had grown to 98. More than 30,000 civilian and military firefighters were called to action, including experienced teams from Australia, Canada, Mexico, and New Zealand. Fire suppression costs totaled close to $2 billion.

The most famous fire of 2000--a springtime prescribed burn gone awry at Bandelier National Monument near Los Alamos, New Mexico--caused the evacuation of the entire town before destroying 235 homes and other structures, and damaging the Los Alamos National Laboratory

Many of these wildfires burned hot from the crowns of the trees well into the soils. The most intense fires nearly sterilized the soil, destroying seeds and nutrients and compromising the process of natural regeneration. Not all fires were so damaging. Some of them, and even substantial portions of the intense fires, burned lighter in ways that wildland fire has burned and benefited forests and wildlife for millennia. These "lighter" fires burned less hot and stayed closer to the ground. The ash that remained contained nutrients that improved the forest soils, benefiting larger established trees and new plants that would emerge.

The sizeable increase in intense and damaging fires in recent decades is due, in large part, to successful efforts to suppress wildfire in the 19th and 20th centuries. Prior to that, fire was a routine part of forest life. Lightning fires cleared the woods of brush, dead wood, and an overabundance of young trees. Native Americans burned woodlands to promote desirable plant growth and to drive game. But America's perception of wildfire changed forever in 1910 when 3 million acres in Idaho, Montana, and Washington burned in two days, killing 78 firefighters.

The "The Big Blowup," as it became known, was followed by decades of official policy that all wildfires were to be fought and stopped. Now, decades after the 1910 fires, many of our forests are tinderboxes waiting to burn. And fires that would have been rather inconsequential explode from the forest floor through the tops of the tallest trees, burning with a vengeance. That's what happened over and over last year in ponderosa pine stands, from Los Alamos to the Bitterroot, where the forests have missed from 8 to 20 natural cycles of fuel-reducing fire.

With the recent increase in size and intensity of wildland fires, also comes a more urgent need to rehabilitate damaged areas to prevent further degradation from erosion and the invasion of noxious weeds, such as cheatgrass. …

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