Primed for a Firestorm

By Sampson, R. Neil | Forum for Applied Research and Public Policy, Spring 1999 | Go to article overview

Primed for a Firestorm


Sampson, R. Neil, Forum for Applied Research and Public Policy


Smokey the Bear notwithstanding, the century-old tradition of fire suppression has turned our national forests into a tinderbox.

Forest conditions and evolving land-use patterns are creating an explosive and expensive crisis in the Western United States - one that will not be solved without a major shift in policy and procedure at every level of government. Specifically, health problems in the forests are creating wildfire conditions that are particularly acute on federal lands.

Compounding the problem in many areas is explosive development that places more people and property in harm's way while restricting forest management options that could reduce danger. This situation presents a challenge to state and local governments, which find themselves caught between political opposition to programs aimed at controlling growth and development and escalating costs of protecting lives and property in landscapes where urban development and wildlands intermix.

Where We Stand

Studies of western forests consistently reveal a common set of problems: thick, sickly stands of trees that crowd each other for light, nutrients, and water. Such forests are susceptible to stress during periodic droughts, which opens the way for major insect and disease epidemics. Often, the result is a buildup of dead trees and dry fuels that can feed intense wildfires.

This situation has been either ignored or downplayed for decades. A handful of forest ecologists began sounding the alarm as early as the 1940s, noting the importance of wildfire and native American burning practices - which were common throughout the West - in shaping forest systems. But official opinion, as it was shaped by the U.S. Forest Service, rejected controlled burning as backward and unscientific. Controlled burning was known as "Paiute forestry," a disparaging term suggesting that native American practices were of no value because they were "unscientific."

The Forest Service argued that even light ground fires damaged crops of trees and that a program of fire exclusion and silvicultural management could more effectively maintain the forests of the West. The California Board of Forestry adopted the Forest Service position in 1924, effectively ending a major debate among professional foresters over the merits of light burning as a forest-management practice in the West.(1)

By 1962, official views slowly began to change. A committee headed by naturalist A. Starker Leopold called attention to major changes in the forests of the National Park System and recommended the increased use of prescribed fire, as it was called, as a management tool. In the late 1960s, prescribed fire programs were initiated in two parks in California's Sierra Nevada Mountains: Sequoia-Kings Canyon National Park and Yosemite National Parks

In the 1970s, the California Department of Natural Resources reintroduced fire into state parks, and M. Rupert Cutler, assistant U.S. Secretary of Agriculture, announced a shift intended to move Forest Service policy from fire suppression to fire management.

These tentative moves toward a different fire policy were, however, small steps in the face of the continued buildup of fuels in western wildlands and the escalating cycle of destructive wildfires that was emerging. By 1988, when the Park Service allowed natural fires in Yellowstone Park to burn without aggressive suppression, the result was a firestorm of unprecedented size and intensity for that region. In the heat of media glare, political patience with the emerging policy of fire management wore thin, and politicians and forest managers initiated a major policy review to ensure that such events were not repeated.

The Yellowstone fires, while gaining international attention because of the park's aura and prestige, represented only the beginning. Across the West, wildland fuel conditions became increasingly dangerous, and intense wildfires raged whenever dry weather and ignition from natural or human sources coincided. …

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