Fire avoidance: Unshoe horses, rent goat herd

By , Special to The Christian Science Monitor

In national forests across the West, cowboys are being asked to pay special attention to the bottoms of their horses' hooves.

The reason: Metal horseshoes, if scraped against rocks on backcountry trails, can spark wildfires capable of growing quickly into infernos.

At beloved family retreats in the mountains, charcoal grilling of hamburgers and hot dogs is now forsaken. Roasting of marshmallows over open campfires has been replaced by impromptu rain dancing. And lighting up bottle rockets and cigarettes can become a federal offense.

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From the sun-scorched chaparral of California to the ponderosa pine of South Dakota's Black Hills, states and communities are taking extraordinary measures this summer to reduce the threat of fire. With July 4 approaching, amid worries that holiday revelers could go too far with backyard fireworks, the focus from now until the start of autumn is on a single watchword – prevention.

"It's scary how dry it is out there," says David Leugers as lightning pricks the timber and smoke drifts overhead from blazes downstate near Durango, Colo.

As proprietor of the Alpine Lodge, a cluster of rustic cabins and a restaurant pressed up against the forested Sangre de Cristo range, Mr. Leugers is playing the role of boy scout himself. This summer he's hired someone to prune aspen trees and clear brush away from his cabins, four hours southwest of Denver.

It's a ritual being carried out intensely by thousands of homeowners in a dozen states. Already, the Federal Emergency Management Agency has issued tens of millions of dollars to rural fire departments that are helping homeowners with similar projects.

In fact, some fire officials have informed high-risk inhabitants who live in wooded areas that unless they do their part to flame-proof buildings, firefighters may deem the property too dangerous to defend.

Prevention, however, has taken on all sizes and forms. Along the bushy highlands of the California coast and eastward toward the flanks of the Sierra Nevada mountains, farmers are doing brisk business renting out their sheep and goats to eat away fire danger. Literally.

In exchange for modest fees, ranchers loose hundreds of animals on a landscape where they graze through thick grass at the rate of about an acre a day. They turn former flame-friendly slopes into hills that resemble golf course fairways.

Not long ago, the San Francisco Public Utilities Commission imported goats to perform their magic outside Redwood City. One operation, Covington Farms, has even set up a web site (goatweedeaters.com).

Matchstick conditions

All the vigilance is understandable. So far this year, fires have blackened more than 2.8 million acres – almost three times the 10-year average for this time of year. At least 24 major fires are currently burning in six Western states.

While lightning is responsible for starting the vast majority of fires, many big ones this year have been ignited by humans, either through arson or carelessness, which is another reason for all the precautions.

Leonard Gregg, a seasonal firefighter on the Fort Apache Indian Reservation in Arizona, was charged Sunday with starting the worst fire in state history so he could make money. The big Hayman fire in Colorado was allegedly intentionally set, too, this one by a Forest Service worker.

Given the matchstick conditions, old hands around the West know how easily a fire can start. For instance, Randy Rusk, a cattle rancher near Westcliffe who often hunts with horses, says he sees sparks coming out from his horse's shoes every time he rides.

The danger level is prompting authorities to take some unusual actions:

• A government-led movement to have homeowners re-landscape their lawns with drought-resistant plants that also work as fire retarders. That means cactus, rockrose, and maples are in. Pines are out.

• Hundreds of counties in the West have banned open fires, including use of charcoal barbecues in outlying areas. Call it a hibachi-free summer.

• Motorized vehicles, because of their exhaust sparks and emissions systems, also are denied access to many public lands. In southern Colorado, which has one of the most active areas of natural gas development, exploration and pipeline expansion has been suspended – again because of possible sparks from heavy equipment.

• The Forest Service and four other federal land-management agencies with jurisdiction over half a billion acres of land are aggressively identifying forests filled with trees dying of beetle infestations.

In the San Isabel Forest above the Alpine Lodge, for example, recent outbreaks of pine beetles have left many acres covered in dead trees, but because they lie in federal wilderness areas, chainsaws to trim them are prohibited. Rep. Scott McInnis (R) of Colorado, chairman of the House subcommittee on Forests and Forest Health, has said such areas are just waiting to be turned into "charcoal wastelands."

Conservationists have shown signs they are willing to seek creative solutions to allow for thinning, but warn that hastily logging forests could initiate as many problems as it solves. "Politicians are beating up on environmentalists, blaming us for nearly a century of suppression that was promoted by the timber industry," says Rob Ament, executive director of American Wildlands. "Now they want to log the forest to save it from fire."

This year even Smokey the Bear, once lionized as the symbol of fire suppression, then demonized as an archaic ecological icon, must be confused. Today, Smokey is being prominently displayed again imploring public land users to put all fires out.

By far the greatest looming danger in weeks ahead is from fireworks. California State Fire Marshal John Tennant has implemented a "zero tolerance" policy and is ready to slap those who use illegal pyrotechnics with fines and potential jail time.

Convening a special task force, California also has rented billboard space and taken out ads on television and radio encouraging citizens to turn in users of illegal fireworks just as they would drug dealers. Fireworks sales have been banned in several states, and dozens of cities have canceled their planned pyrotechnic displays, replacing them instead with laser light shows.

"The public's participation in our war against illegal fireworks will bolster the already stressed resources of fire and law-enforcement agencies," says Mr. Tennant.

Water, water nowhere

For many towns in the West, trying to prevent fires this year has been complicated by another factor – the lack of water for lawns. At the same time many states have imposed burning bans, they also have called for water rationing.

In Denver, for example, homeowners are advised to water their lawns every three days. Yet fire officials say that such things as rural golf courses can serve as strategic fire breaks. A few course managers have tried to strike a compromise by continuing to sprinkle fairways while letting roughs go unwatered.

There have been no complaints, so far, from high handicappers who stray off the fairway.

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