The 20 major fires that have consumed more than 2.5 million acres in nine states raise deep questions about how to prevent and fight such conflagrations.
How to reverse nearly 100 years of history during which the basic Smokey Bear approach of full suppression has choked forests with flammable material? How to accommodate the inexorable movement of new homeowners into the "wildland-urban interface," where shake roofs and shade trees are fuel to a hungry fire?
Such questions are inevitably controversial. They involve balancing the more natural "let-it-burn" approach with the "active forest management" (i.e., more logging) favored by President Bush and the timber industry. They include delegating authority and responsibility for firefighting among federal agencies, state and local governments, and private property owners.
And as massive fires rage out of control in Colorado and Arizona this week, they reflect the political heat of environmental protection: How to overcome what US Forest Service chief Dale Bosworth calls the "analysis paralysis" of environmental regulation and lawsuits that he says has prevented aggressive fire prevention.
On one thing experts and advocates agree: trying to snuff out all fires before they can spread has not been the best thing for nature or even for development, particularly the retirement and vacation homes that have crept into forest areas. "For decades we've been suppressing wildfires that used to naturally thin many of our forests," says Gov. John Kitzhaber (D) of Oregon. "The unfortunate result, however, has been to raise the potential for dangerously large and intense wildfires."
Historically, ground-level natural fires regularly cleared out the dense undergrowth and crowded smaller trees that can cause catastrophic "crown fires" to leap from one tall evergreen to the next. But according to the Intermountain Forest Association (an industry group in Coeur d'Alene, Idaho), ponderosa pine forests in many parts of the West now have 10 times as many trees per acre as they did a century ago.
There's also agreement that strategically-set fires need to be part of preventing massive blazes like the ones that have forced thousands of people to evacuate their homes this week.
In recent years, the US Forest Service and other government agencies have started restoration programs involving prescribed burns as well as forest thinning. But it's a controversial policy. In a few instances, the fires have gotten out of control and destroyed private property.
Heading off wildfires today involves a mix of low- and high-tech: With financial help from a federal program, Deb Wilson and her husband, Ed Green, have been chopping the manzanita and buck brush away from their home in Wildcat Canyon outside Ashland, Ore. An hour or two away, Laura Glasscock is spending her summer alone, scanning the horizon for smoke from a remote lookout tower in the Cascade Mountains.
Meanwhile, sophisticated detectors are recording the thousands of lightening strikes that cause most wildfires, and a process called the "Wildfire Automated Biomass Burning Algorithm" is helping spot and map fires from satellites more than 20,000 miles above Earth.
It's all serious business, particularly given the state of much of the nation's forest land. Fire suppression, the woody debris left behind by loggers, and the impact of cattle grazing on federal rangeland have damaged watersheds and ecosystems, leaving them more prone to ignition. According to the General Accounting Office, about one-third of the 192 million-acre national forest system is in severe fire danger.
"In many areas, this will require active forest management efforts to thin our forests of excessive natural fuels and restore native vegetation to our forests and rangelands," President Bush said at a recent meeting of western governors. Forest Service chief Dale Bosworth says much of the delay is due to bureaucratic red tape and legal challenges.
"We find ourselves too often unable to do the work that we know needs to be done, the work that Congress and the public expect us to do, because of unnecessary and unproductive process," Mr. Bosworth told a House Resources Committee hearing last week.
Environmentalists respond that supporting federal laws having to do with forest management, clean water, and species protection is a legitimate use of time. They note a GAO report last year showing that of 1,671 Forest Service hazardous fuels reduction projects in 2001, only 20 had been appealed and none had been litigated.
"The bottom line is that the Bush administration is doing industry's bidding by attacking environmental safeguards to make it easier for the timber industry to destroy our public land legacy," says Doug Heiken of the Oregon Natural Resources Council.
Such arguments are as much about economics as they are about natural resources and the environment that produces them. Selling timber from national forestland consistently results in red ink for Uncle Sam the "below-cost timber sales" that have cost the federal government billions of dollars over the years. Critics say that's because the price paid by timber companies doesn't reflect true costs, including the cost of building the thousands of miles of dirt roads that spiderweb forests.
Such roads have other purposes: ready access for firefighters. They also provide access to hunters, campers, and others who may on purpose or by accident be the cause of fires.
But that's just one part of the economic dilemma. Zoning laws to make new development more fire-safe add to new building costs. The thinning of smaller, noncommercial trees and salvage logging to restore previously burned areas would have to be subsidized in order to attract companies that could do that kind of work. Small subsidies to help the owners of existing homes clear their immediate areas of brush and other fuel have become available in recent years.
All of this adds to the cost of fighting fire. Still, it's less than the costs of the huge fires that claim some 3 million acres every summer, many of which arethe indirect result of official policies.
How do Americans feel about the fundamental values at stake? Conflicted, it seems. Most see loss of habitat and endangered species as their biggest concern about wildfires (54 percent) even more so than loss of homes or private property (45 percent). But at the same time, according to a recent survey of public opinion in six Western states conducted by "Wildland Firefighter" magazine, a large majority (73 percent) favor mechanical thinning of forests (i.e., logging) over leaving forests to Mother Nature.
It is through this thicket of opinion and outlook on wildfires that political leaders now must navigate.