New plan: Prevent more forest fires

As the West blazes, officials look to tree-thinning and prescribed burns.

The air here in southern Oregon looks like it's been imported from Los Angeles - so thick you can't see across the valley. Ash and charred pine needles drift down on this small town as big DC-6 firebombers and Chinook helicopters motor back and forth over the nearby ridgeline to the Rogue River National Forest, dumping their retardant on a 5,000-acre blaze that continues to grow.

It's a story being told across the West this summer as drought, low humidity, lightning strikes, and the occasional out of control campfire take their toll.

For half a century, US Forest Service mascot Smokey Bear told Americans: "Only you can prevent forest fires." In reality, official fire policy was not so much prevention as it was fighting blazes after they'd started.

Now, Western governors and the Bush administration are launching a plan they hope will reverse this long-entrenched policy, replacing it with one they say more nearly mimics nature and reduces the risk of catastrophic fires.

The plan, introduced this week, includes more tree-thinning and prescribed burns to remove underbrush. It also gives state and local officials more say in forest management. Putting it together involved not only government officials, but also representatives of the timber industry and environmental groups.

"For years, we have been suppressing wildfires, increasing the fuel load and incrementally moving our forest ecosystems and wildlands away from their historic health conditions," says Oregon Gov. John Kitzhaber (D), who declared a state of emergency Monday that could put state National Guard troops on the fire lines here.

Experts say the change comes none too soon. Rather than being regularly "cleansed" of underbrush, downed trees, and other fuel by ground-level, natural fires, forests became overcrowded and, therefore, more susceptible to huge burns that jump treetops.

Such fires not only threaten homes and communities, they can also literally roast ecosystems, destroying habitat and making recovery very difficult.

"The result is forests that, due to continuing fire suppression, tend to burn less frequently," says G. Thomas Bancroft, an ecologist with the Wilderness Society, a national environmental organization. "But when they do burn, the fire is much more likely to reach the forest canopy and spread as a crown fire."

The General Accounting Office (Congress's investigative arm) estimates that 39 million acres of national forestland in the interior West - nearly one-third the total - are at high risk of catastrophic wildfire.

Last year was one of the worst in recorded history for wildfires. Some 30,000 fires - most caused by lightning - burned more than 7 million acres of forests and rangelands in the West.

"What was really unusual about the 2000 fire season wasn't that 7 million acres burned, but that the average size and intensity of individual fires were much larger and hotter than they have been historically," says Rep. Scott McInnis (R) of Colorado, who chairs the House subcommittee on forests.

The wildfire record so far this year isn't as bad as in 2000: To date, roughly 2.17 million acres have burned compared with some 4.9 million acres this time last year.

But the potential exists for this to be another bad year, particularly since portions of seven Western states (Oregon, California, Nevada, Idaho, Montana, Wyoming, and Texas) are experiencing what federal officials call "extreme drought."

The new state-federal fire plan (details of which will be issued before next summer's fire season) is sure to be expensive and controversial - particularly the part about cutting down trees to save the forest.

Some environmentalists suspect it's an excuse for loggers to fire up their chain saws, or for the Bush administration to reverse former President Bill Clinton's order preventing roadbuilding in 58 million acres of national forestland. (One of the arguments for more roads is that they provide access to firefighters. Opponents note that most fires occur in areas with roads, since those areas are more accessible to arsonists and those who accidentally set fires.)

Finding the right balance between forest preservation and hands-on management is tricky, especially when machines and intentional fires are involved.

"The reduction of surface fuel decreases the convective-energy heating of tree crowns, and the spacing of the tree crowns limits the amount of radiation-heat transfer to adjacent trees," University of Montana forestry professor Ronald Wakimoto told a congressional hearing recently. "If the reductions [in brush, smaller trees, and other fuel] are sufficient, the fire drops to the surface."

What degree of thinning is effective?

"I don't think we know the answer to this question, given the variety of site conditions, fuel loadings and stand structures that exist in the West," says Dr. Wakimoto. "The best we can do are empirical 'rules of thumb' developed from observation."

Settling on those rules of thumb may be the hardest part in the new era of forest management.

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