Wildfire Update

By Davis, Norah Deakin | American Forests, September-October 1989 | Go to article overview

Wildfire Update


Davis, Norah Deakin, American Forests


Pick up the newspapers the past two summers, and it may seem like the West is going up in smoke. In fact, the summer blazes, fueled by a prolonged drought, have hopscotched from region to region, creating a mosaic of scorched forests and grasslands.

Says John W. Chambers, assistant director of Fire and Aviation Management for the U.S. Forest Service, "The 1988 fire season was the fourth consecutive major fire season in the U. S.

Chambers predicts that by the time it's done, the 1989 season will prove to be the fifth bad fire year in a row. An average of more than four million acres have burned in each of the past four years. Last season alone, more than five million acres went up in flames.

Yellowstone suffered the "most severe fire season on record," Chambers adds. "This year, the Southwest is experiencing something very similar to 1974, which was one of the worst fire years on record in the Southwest. "

The 1988 Yellowstone fire focused media attention on our national fire policy-the so-called "let-burn" rule in which certain fires are allowed to take their natural course under carefully prescribed conditions. In response to a firestorm of criticism, the "prescribed natural fire policy" underwent scrutiny by the nation's top firefighters. The result was a reaffirmation of the policy but a temporary ban on let-burn for the 1989 fire season.

While the conditions are clarified under which prescribed fires will be permitted to go unchecked, this summer's fires have helped warm up another hot potato. In recent years the creep of suburbia toward wilderness areas has created a migraine of a headache for our nation's fire-fighters.

By mid-July the Forest Service was reporting that a forest fire had destroyed 39 houses in an upscale development outside Boulder, Colorado, near the Arapaho-Roosevelt National Forest. (See the first-hand account by Ron Gosnell, below.) Chambers calls the Boulder blaze a benchmark fire for the Rocky Mountain area in terms of property damage.

But he added that the Boulder fire was "just another chapter" in a nationwide problem. "People want to get away from cities to natural settings," says Chambers, "but without zoning restrictions, you're already behind the eight ball. You can build some pretty well-designed houses, but if they're not zoned, you can wind up with real fire traps."

Chambers adds that the "urban-wildland interface" problem, as it is called in the bureaucratic tongue, first became a matter of concern in the early 1970s, when it was thought of as a Southern California problem alone. Now every state in the nation is at risk.

In 1986 the interface issue resulted in a national initiative to ensure cooperation among federal, state, and local fire-protection agencies. Fighting fires in structures is a highly specialized job that is the responsibility of county and local fire departments, but federal agencies have the job of preventing wildfires from reaching nearby houses.

Firefighters holding their hoses on houses will have their backs to the wilderness. "Protecting developed areas takes a lot of our firefighting capability," Chambers points out. "As a consequence, our wildland fires may get larger and more damaging. "

He suspects that homeowners in urban-wildland areas may be receiving a disproportionate share of fire protection. "More than they're paying for," he says. "We wind up with a situation where the wildlands are receiving less protection than the public has a right to expect from their taxes. "

The interface issue has escalated to an international concern. In July, six government agencies from the United States, Canada, and Mexico sponsored an International Wildfire Conference in Boston. Chambers calls the conference an "offshoot of wildland-urban interface problems and emerging concern worldwide about wildfire damage."

The interface issue and the let-burn brouhaha have kept federal agencies scrambling to put out media brushfires. …

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