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
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
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. …