CALIFORNIA'S six-year drought is the main culprit behind the spate of eight fires that burned 100,000 acres over six counties last week. The fires underline the omnipresent concern about conflagration across one of the world's most fire-prone regions, unique for its combination of terrain, temperature, wind, humidity, and woody vegetation.
But they also spotlight a problem officials say is growing across western wild lands, one that is complicating firefighting efforts as well as the ecosystem management that could prevent such episodes - the presence of man.
"Population shifts are following a pattern that moves firefighters' first priorities from containing the fire to saving people and homes," says Lisa Boyd, spokeswoman for the California Department of Forestry. The buzz phrase is "Fires of the Future." "It is a trend that will continue to complicate firefighting and make it more expensive."
"Public policy across the West has tried to exclude fire as some sort of disaster, when it is in reality critical to the health of ecosystems," says Jeffrey Olson, director of the Wilderness Society's Bolle Center for Forest Ecosystem Management. "Because of past management to unnaturally control such fires in protecting homes and property, we find ourselves in the likelihood of large conflagrations across the West." Fires in Idaho, Oregon
According to the federal Interagency Fire Center in Boise, Idaho, 14 fires were burning across Idaho last week and two were burning in Oregon. An estimated 9,200 firefighters were on fire lines in the Western states.
California's 30 million population is growing by 800,000 people a year, pressuring coastal residents to move inland to communities that often border on wild lands. Major fires in the California communities of Santa Barbara and Oakland in recent years have shown the danger of crowding into hilly communities rich in dry underbrush and susceptible to the moisture-leeching effects of high winds.
Last week's infernos came with the seasonal dryness that reaches its peak in August and September and has been exacerbated by the effects of six years of far-below-average precipitation.
"When you combine tall, standing live trees with low levels of moisture with standing dead trees with almost no moisture, you are set up for very explosive fire conditions when the wind and weather are right," says Frank Mosbacher, spokesman for the United States Forest Service in Placerville, Calif.
Nearly $7 million in fire-suppression costs - for such expenses as fire-retardants, transportation, and firefighter salaries - was spent in a five-day period. The most damage was incurred in California's Shasta County where the so-called "Fountain" fire consumed 307 homes and 267 miscellaneous structures, from barns to sheds.
In Inyo National Forest near Mammoth Lakes, 7,760 acres burned; Trinity County near Hayfork lost 6,400 acres; Kern County south of Bakersfield lost 100 acres; two fires in Los Padre National Forest totaled 800 acres; El Dorado County lost 800 and Calaveras County lost 17,386 acres.
"Having eight fires burning at once, two of massive size, is not a normal situation," says Ms. Boyd. Increasing awareness
Though at press time all but one had been contained, state and federal authorities and environmental organizations are concerned about the next full month, before the rainy season begins.
Officials are trying to raise public consciousness over fire hazards, from children playing with matches to adults smoking. Ninety percent of California wildfires are caused by humans, says Boyd.
And although the No. 1 cause of forest fires in more mountainous regions continues to be lightning, officials say they are increasingly concerned about two sources associated with recreational visits - uncontained campfires and catalytic converters. "If you drive a car with a catalytic converter into an area where there is dry grass, the converter is easily hot enough to ignite both grass and underbrush," says Mr. Mosbacher.
At press time, the so-called "Old Gulch" fire in Calaveras County was being attributed to a converter. And after ruling out lightning, downed power lines, and campfires in the Shasta County fire, officials had narrowed the possibilities to catalytic converters and arson.
The recent fires have also intensified long-standing debates over forest management. Several environmental organizations, such as the Sierra Club and the Wilderness Society, have long held that the combined effects of drought and a decades-long policy of federal agencies to aggressively fight fires on national forest land have interrupted natural fire cycles.
By stopping fires before they are able to take their normal course of consuming underbrush and other dead and decaying matter, such practices have multiplied current dangers.
Mosbacher says regional policy in California includes removing, as a fire hazard, dead trees in national forests. In recent years, in the El Dorado National Forest, for instance, a billion feet of timber board has been identified as dead through insect infestation, one half of which will be removed by tractors, helicopters, and other salvage vehicles.
But, says Mr. Olson, "removing dead and dying trees and other woody debris through a program of salvage-logging sounds like a good idea, but it's a cure that is worse than the disease." Education programs
Observers on both sides agree that the increasing presence of man has complicated the equation. The California Department of Forestry is increasingly pushing a new campaign, "Fire Safe California," which educates prospective home builders in wild lands about fire prevention.
"There is no doubt that fire plays an important part in the management of the forest's own ecosystem," says Mosbacher. "But the increasing presence of man on these lands makes it impossible to sit back and let nature dictate where wildfires go on their own terms."