Keep Cool Over Set Fires

Lessons will be drawn from the terrible fire that swept through the Los Alamos area of New Mexico. But, as with any disaster involving great losses, there's danger in making snap, emotional reactions.

Since the blaze spread from a "prescribed fire" set by the National Park Service, a key means of managing the Western forests has come under a cloud of suspicion. The narrow question is whether the Park Service official who ordered the controlled burn acted recklessly.

Federal inquires, including congressional probes, will try to answer that. Scapegoating has to be avoided. The practice relies heavily on fickle weather. Federal responsibility for the losses should be acknowledged, however, and government aid should be given to the homeowners affected.

The larger question is whether the policy of prescribed fires, in effect for three decades, is fundamentally wrong-headed. Critics point out that even a small number of set fires gone wild can cause extensive damage, especially under the dry conditions that are optimum for burning and if human settlements are nearby.

On the other side of the issue, fire-management experts see controlled burning as an indispensable tool for two reasons.

1. They say a prior policy of suppressing every fire in a forest is a mistake, causing a huge buildup of flammable material on the forest floor that can lead to more intense, fast-moving - and uncontrolled - fires. The controlled burning clears the underbrush and dead wood.

2. It also helps generate new, healthier forest growth by recycling nutrients and aiding plant species that depend on fire to open cones and germinate seeds. But there's no question it's risky.

Any fire in dry woodlands - particularly the highly flammable Western coniferous forests - can be subject to quick shifts in intensity. Fires set anywhere in the vicinity of homes pose particular problems. But it shouldn't be forgotten that the homes themselves pose problems, too. They're located in an area where nature's ravages are likely, no less than in a flood- plain. Homeowners should take care to fireproof their dwellings and perhaps thin nearby woods.

Prescribed fires are likely to continue. Their benefits are generally acknowledged. The various federal forest agencies' record for safety in controlled fires is generally good. Even so, the Los Alamos fire is an opportunity to review burning policies and make sure the highest level of caution and safety is being maintained.

(c) Copyright 2000. The Christian Science Publishing Society

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