Realistic living in a tinderbox

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Living in the West, you learn to respect the landscape and to expect the fires. The green of spring lasts only a few weeks before the hills quickly turn straw yellow. Unlike the Eastern half of the US, we see little if any rain from late spring to October.

Once the vegetation is dry, anything can ignite a wildfire. Sparks from a train, a hot chain saw, a lit cigarette, or a car wreck.

Yet, such human-sparked fires belie an ecological reality. This month, officials estimated that 90 percent of the large wildland fires were started by lightning strikes.

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Forests and grasses evolved with fire as a natural and necessary part of their life cycle. Wildland vegetation burns, and must burn, periodically to survive.

There was much criticism 12 years ago when forest managers allowed more than a million acres to burn in Yellowstone Park. Yet, the result was a renewed forest with better habitat and biodiversity. Where we saw a charred landscape of devastation, nature sees a new season.

While fire is a natural part of this system - a tinderbox ecologically "designed" to burn - nature intended a much different fire than those that currently burn.

Left alone, small fires clear out the underbrush and small trees while leaving larger trees undamaged.

Ironically, 70 years of suppressing small fires has created a much larger, more dangerous tinderbox. The built-up fuel changes the nature of a wildfire so that it is more destructive to the land.

Federal land managers know about this danger. In 1995, officials concluded that "agencies and the public must change their expectation that all wildfires can be controlled or suppressed ... wildland fire, as a critical natural process, must be reintroduced into the ecosystem."

Unfortunately, even as scientists learn more about the natural role of fire on the land, the call for total fire suppression has grown. More of us are moving into fire's natural path. In fact, 40 million Americans now make their home in sparsely populated areas surrounded by wildland vegetation - vegetation that would naturally burn every few years.

Homes in the forest make the job of fire prevention more difficult. Homeowners don't like prescribed fires because they generate smoke, and because these small fires occasionally get out of control.

Wildland firefighters often don't have the resources to devote to "structure protection." It makes their ability to battle a blaze more treacherous.

Sadly, the things that need to be done to prevent catastrophic wildfires are exactly the things the public is unlikely to sit still for:

*More prescribed "light burns" to clear out dense underbrush that has accumulated on the forest floor.

After 200 homes near Los Alamos, N.M., were destroyed when a prescribed burn went awry, the Clinton administration instituted a 30-day ban on prescribed burns - which may have increased the likelihood of the catastrophic fires now burning out of control. Yet, we need more prescribed burning, not less.

*Increased restrictions on building homes in or near forests - including not allowing some homes to be rebuilt in high-fire- hazard areas.

The more homes built in tinderbox forests, the more we risk the lives of our firefighters as well as the safety and property of homeowners.

As Interior Secretary Bruce Babbitt wrote in 1998: "The obvious solution to fire hazards of the urban-wildland intermix is to maintain more separation between forests and subdivisions, thereby allowing natural fire to function without constantly alarming residents, threatening property, and endangering firefighters."

Yet in the US, we seem unable to restrain ourselves from building and rebuilding homes in high-hazard areas.

*Letting forest fires burn.

In wildlands, roadless areas, and national parks, we should use the success of Yellowstone as an example. Some fires should burn to restore the ecological presence of fire on the land. Sadly, increased development is already limiting our ability to let nature take its course.

*Mechanical removal of built-up fuel.

In some areas, accumulated brush is too volatile to remove with controlled burning. Yarding out the so-called "ladder fuels" that allow brush fires to climb into the crown of treetops must be done where it cannot be burned safely. Environmentalists fear fire prevention will be used as an excuse to get around habitat protection measures, and land managers say such "mechanical treatments" are unpopular with the public.

*More money for fire readiness.

The more people move into wildland homes, the more difficult it will be to fight and prevent fires in the West. Budgets for addressing these problems have been cut. A recent General Accounting Office report found that addressing the increased wildfire risk would cost $725 million - 10 times the current level.

The Forest Service plans an even larger operation - $12 billion to clear brush on 40 million acres.

Unless we take action, it will only get more expensive and dangerous in the years ahead.

*Ed Hunt is the editor of the Tidepool.org news service.

(c) Copyright 2000. The Christian Science Publishing Society

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