West takes steps to prevent repeat of last year's fires

Responding to a dry spring and armed with a hefty budget, teams are already starting controlled burns.

Across the American West this spring, smoke signals are rising, announcing the start of a new national wildfire strategy aimed at reducing the number of costly, epic-sized blazes like those that raced across the landscape in recent years.

A campaign of "prescribed burns" - the practice of igniting controlled fires now to reduce the risk of big conflagrations later - is just part of the largest federal investment in fire management in US history.

Nearly $3 billion was set aside by Congress and the Clinton administration last year, in reaction to one of the worst fire seasons on record. And firefighting teams are already getting ready, as drought-like conditions persist in much of the West.

The US Forest Service and the US Bureau of Land Management plan to treat three million acres of public land with prescribed burns. But they're also determined to put safety first - hoping to avoid disasters like last summer's Cerro Grande fire, a National Park Service burn that raged out of control in Los Alamos, N.M., and destroyed 200 homes in the process.

"We want to treat those acres and we need to treat those acres, but ... the bottom line of success isn't gauged in how many black acres we achieve," says Jack Sept, chief spokesman for the National Interagency Fire Center in Boise, Idaho. Indeed, just last week in the Boise National Forest of western Idaho, fire commanders aborted a planned burn after federal and state experts determined that conditions were too risky.

With a Johnnie Cochrane-like rhyme to his verse, Mr. Sept calls attention to the new mantra in the West: "If the prescription isn't right, we won't ignite."

That said, many experts agree the US has a huge job of catching up to do to treat large landscapes that are susceptible to "catastrophic fire."

Some 60 million acres are at high risk, and, according to some meteorologists, indicators point to another potentially explosive fire season.

Last year, more than $1.6 billion of taxpayer money - double the typical firefighting costs - went toward battling some 90,000 fires nationwide. A total area equal in size to Massachusetts, Rhode Island, Delaware, and Connecticut combined was burned over, and at least 860 structures were destroyed. Fortunately, the number of human casualties was remarkably low.

Among the major priorities that have been outlined in this year's campaign:

* Federal wildfire teams are working with local urban and rural fire departments in 4,000 communities to try to fireproof vulnerable neighborhoods.

* The Forest Service and BLM are working closely with The Nature Conservancy, an expert in using fire management for ecological purposes, to derive more environmental benefits from burns in areas where public and private lands intersect.

* Fire-management strategists are working with dozens of urban planners from Flagstaff, Ariz. to Boulder, Colo., to protect municipal water supplies that would be threatened by ash and mudslides in the case of a fire.

* In the Great Basin area, aggressive strategies have been put in place to protect the last swaths of aboriginal sagebrush in an attempt to keep the imperiled sage grouse off the endangered species list.

While heavy spring rains could still change the outlook for 2001, several states in the West report that winter moisture levels are down to anywhere between 50 and 65 percent of normal in the mountains.

In Montana, water levels in the Yellowstone River are running at their lowest level in decades. Here in Bozeman, a sizable wildfire flared two weeks ago in an area nearby that doesn't usually confront a serious fire threat until mid-summer.

Raging grassfires in Florida this winter were the first ominous warning, officials say. Now, with the West drying out as warm weather approaches, outbreaks of wildfire are expected to follow a well-charted course, beginning with the Southwest and moving northward into the Rockies and Great Basin.

And firefighting teams are preparing. In response to information gathered by 1,800 weather stations, satellite cameras, and on-the-ground research, teams are already being positioned in strategic locations. "We have 80 smoke jumpers sitting in Boise right now ready to go, and the winter is barely over with," Sept says.

The object is to catch fires small, put them out, keep them out, and prevent them from reaching such a size that it requires full deployment of crews that were stretched to the breaking point last year.

Managers hope the unprecedented fire-prevention budget will allow them to begin getting to the source of the problem instead of falling further behind.

"It's like losing weight," says Sept. "It may take ten years to gain the unwanted pounds, but to gain your health back you can't lose it all in a month. To shed this fire fuels problem it's going to take an investment over generations."

(c) Copyright 2001. The Christian Science Monitor

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