Lessons on Limiting Fire Danger During The Summer of '94

THE hills across the way in this southern Oregon valley have a black scorch mark where dry lightning crackled down one recent night, touching off a fire that burned 480 acres of drought-parched grass and nearly consuming a ranch house before firefighters got it under control.

The arrow on the ``fire danger'' sign at the edge of Ashland is all the way up to ``extreme.'' Public-works officials are warning lot owners to cut excessive grass and brush or face stiff fines, and town fire marshal Don Paul had a column in the paper telling people how to prepare for quick evacuation.

Now the air in the valley again is hazy and smoke-scented from a fire just north of here that exceeded 7,000 acres over the weekend, forcing the evacuation of 250 homes and taking the life of a young man trying to cut a firebreak with a bulldozer.

The long, hot summer of 1994 in the West continues.

Federal officials last week issued their report on the Storm King Mountain fire in Colorado that cost 14 lives. Investigators cited ``the `can-do' attitude of supervisors and firefighters'' that led to the bending of safety rules, although the criticisms were general and compassionate.

``Breakdowns in communications. Errors in judgment. Lack of coordination. The same sort of mistakes people like you and me make every day,'' said Mike Dombeck, director of the United States Bureau of Land Management. ``Only this time, the fuel and weather and flame magnified human error with deadly and tragic consequences.''

Fire was part of the Western environment long before human development. It helped clear out excessive vegetation, preventing catastrophic burns, allowing forests to evolve naturally, and creating habitat for wildlife. Native Americans used it as a tool for game and vegetation management.

But starting about a century ago, the policy became to douse fires. Or better yet, as Smokey Bear reminded us, prevent them before they start. Summer lightning can't be controlled, however. And when it hits in a place where natural fires haven't occurred for decades, a burn can sweep from thick underbrush to treetops in a hurry, creating its own wind and explosiveness in a hellish mix of chemistry and physics.

Some people now advocate letting fires run their course where human life is not threatened. But like so many environmental and natural-resource issues, this involves a conflict in values. Economic interests are at stake. Fires set deliberately to reduce fuel buildup may violate air-quality standards. Fire-management practices can clash with efforts to preserve endangered species or archaeological assets.

If there were ``errors in judgment'' at the Storm King Mountain fire, history shows there to have been errors in political and bureaucratic judgment long before that. Allowing people to build houses in the high-fire areas of places like southern California, for example, then not ordering unsightly but necessary controlled burns. Keeping ``national treasures'' like Yellowstone wholly green when regular smaller burns could have prevented the 1988 conflagration that left much of the place looking a mess.

There are ways to limit the potential for fire danger that inevitably increases as more and more newcomers fill the West with subdivisions and small-acreage ``hobby ranches.''

In forests now under management, thinning salvage logging, and controlled burns should take greater precedence - with the costs passed along in taxes and higher prices for forest products. Stricter zoning laws to keep development away from high-risk areas and building codes to make sure structures are as fireproof as possible also are needed.

The fire season in the West will end with the rain and snow of winter, which will turn the scorch mark across the valley green again. But like the smoke that lingers now, the lessons will remain.

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