Little Fires to End Big Fires

The fires that have already blackened millions of acres in the West this year should finally heat up efforts to avoid such threatening blazes in the future.

The long-term solution is to reverse decades of fire-suppression policies that have contributed to the buildup of brush, fallen wood, and other fuel in the forests. As that task is undertaken, fires in many instances can be treated as a natural phenomenon that aids the cleanup process.

For now, however, bureaucratic inertia to clearing out forest fuel must be overcome. That also means overcoming stiff opposition to federal approval for carefully selected logging to help clear out the woods.

The rapid pace and size of this year's fires, while due in large measure to the weather, ought to push aside obstacles to more effective fire management. (So far, the fires of 2000 still hold the record.)

The US Forest Service says its steps to make Western timberland less flammable are often blocked by lawsuits from environmental groups. The environmentalists' main concern is that the Forest Service's "restoration logging" projects, part of its forest-thinning effort, not intrude into the relatively few remaining areas of large, old-growth trees.

That concern is valid, but so are plans to allow commercial loggers in to take younger trees that are clogging many forests. That has to be part of the long-term picture, since public agencies need all the help they can get in thinning overgrown forests. The loggers, for their part, need to do a better job of clearing away refuse, or slash, left by their operations.

The careful use of controlled fires is another crucial element. This strategy, too, faces opposition, particularly from property owners who remember the set blazes that got out of control, such as the Los Alamos fire in 2000. With proper preparation, resources, and funding, however, controlled burns can help remove excess fuel.

Perhaps the most prickly issue is the spread of human habitation into fire-prone areas. More communities would do well to follow the lead of some California towns that have suffered recurrent wildfires. Residents are responsible for clearing brush on their land and making sure trees are not too close to dwellings. Building codes specify fire-resistant materials.

Reducing the fire threat will require more cooperation, and less tendency to resort to the extremes of either large-scale commercial use of the forests or no human intervention in them at all. The extremes can be avoided if everyone remembers they have an interest in protecting this invaluable resource.

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