Across West, a burning question

The New Mexico blaze revives a debate over US practice of setting forest fires to reduce the risk of infernos.

The full range of emotions fills this community, where the acrid smell of smoke lingers after an out-of-control wildfire whipped through its neighborhoods over the past five days.

There's relief, that no one was killed and no firefighter was seriously injured.

There's awe, as stories of heroism spread through evacuees' quarters at a nearby Indian reservation. From the firefighter who battled to save his neighbor's home even as flames engulfed his own, to the young Gallegos brothers, who donated toys to families who lost everything, tales of unselfishness proliferate, serving as a sort of antidote to the worst fire in New Mexico history.

But there's also a subtext of anger in this town, as many question how a man-made blaze - intended to reduce the threat of forest fire - could have gone so awry. Underneath the criticism is a more fundamental debate concerning public-lands policy in the West: How much should man, however well-intentioned, meddle with nature?

In response to public outcry, the Clinton administration has halted for now all "prescribed burning," the US government's policy of igniting small fires to reduce the amount of combustible wood and grasses in national parks, forests, and the private lands that abut them.

Despite the criticism by some Western politicians and New Mexico residents, experts say now is not the time to back away from this fire-management tool - even if it means risking other Los Alamos-like infernos. Drought and a shortage of firefighters are adding to the usual fire dangers.

In fact, the General Accounting Office, reporting to a House subcommittee, last year noted that at least 39 million acres of Western forests and grasslands are "at high risk to catastrophic wildfire."

Logging vs. burning

The government's goal is to deliberately burn roughly 3 millions acres a year, almost three times the acreage target in the early 1990s. In a long-running war of words, the timber industry and some Western lawmakers have advocated logging to reduce fire danger. Environmentalists, meanwhile, counter that logging does not usually impart the ecological benefits to a forest that managed burns can, such as enhanced areas for wildlife and nutrients injected into soils.

If anything, say some federal officials, the government needs to redouble its investment in fire research and use of prescribed burns. The public must understand that prescribed burns seldom get away from their human handlers, says Don Smurthwaite, a spokesman at the National Interagency Fire Center in Boise, Idaho.

During the past five years, the government's primary land-management agencies - the Park Service, Forest Service, Fish and Wildlife Service, Bureau of Land Management, and Bureau of Indian Affairs - ignited 31,200 prescribed fires, which reduced fuel loads on about 7.9 million acres. Only a handful of those fires spread beyond predesignated boundaries. Of the 31,200, 0.5 percent escaped immediate containment.

"The overall batting average for keeping prescribed burns under control is really good, despite the public impression that gets formed by the recent fire at Los Alamos," Mr. Smurthwaite says. "No matter how much care and preparation you have, there is always an element of risk."

Last July on the Lowden Ranch in northern California, a planned 100-acre prescribed fire got away from managers and burned 2,000 acres, including 23 homes.

While the Los Alamos fire is a testament to what can happen when things go wrong, the 1988 Yellowstone National Park fires are a reminder of the consequences of suppressing fires altogether. After nearly a century of aggressively snuffing out every blaze, the fires fed on explosive conditions, burning almost 800,000 acres (an area about 20 times bigger than the Los Alamos fire). The irony, perhaps, is that as a result of the Yellowstone fires, the government more aggressively developed the kind of prescribed burns used in New Mexico.

In the forests, a population influx

Supporters of the policy say reducing fuel loads is more urgent than ever because more people live in or beside forests - and most don't realize that forests eventually burn. It's no different than residing in a 100-year flood plain, says Kevin Ryan, a fire expert at the US Forest Service's Fire Science Laboratory in Missoula, Mont.

"If you don't do prescribed burning," he says, "you are likely to have wildfires that take out 5,000 acres today, 5,000 acres tomorrow, and 5,000 acres the day after that."

As a result, the American West is likely to see far more property damage, threats to human safety, and problems with smoke drifting into populated areas, Mr. Ryan and others argue. "Situations like Los Alamos show we still have a long way to go before we get out ahead of the fire danger dilemma," Ryan adds. "We got into this mess with 50 to 100 years of fire suppression. We're not going to get out of it overnight."

(c) Copyright 2000. The Christian Science Publishing Society

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