Overview - Forest Fire Management

Smokey the Bear’s somber mantras aside, forest fires are a natural and necessary part of forest ecosystems. They can only be delayed, not prevented—and delaying them exacerbates their severity and impact. Regular fires keep underbrush to a minimum in healthy forests, preventing further fires from reaching the forest canopy where they can spread unrestricted. They also selectively remove smaller, unhealthy trees and naturally select for trees that are more fire resistant. It is no coincidence, for instance, that in the Pacific Northwest where I live more fire resistant breeds like ponderosa pine and Douglas fir predominate in the warmer regions of the Eastern Cascades where the climate is drier and forest fires are more common.

Forest fires also control pest infestations in trees, return nutrients to the soil and contribute directly to spreading of new forest and the creation of habitat for wildlife. Some species, like lodge pole pine, can only reproduce when their pinecones open under the high heat conditions created by fires, and by weeding out smaller trees, fire contributes directly to the average diameter of trees, thus creating habitat for species like the pileated woodpecker (Dryocopus pileatus) which depends on larger trees for its nesting. In fact, as the USFS learns more about fire management prescribed fires are an increasingly important part of wildfire control.

Even after a century of forestry, it is surprising how few people understand this, and a century of fire suppression policies and logging have created unnaturally dangerous fire conditions across the United States. Fire suppression has allowed dense undergrowth on National Forest land to accumulate to the point where, once ignited in dry years, fire spreads quickly to forest canopies from which it can propagate unrestricted through large areas it would not otherwise be able to reach. Logging thins out larger, higher value trees that are more fire resistant, particularly old growth where it is still cut), and leaves behind slash piles and smaller trees that ignite more easily. Logging roads also provide paths that fires can follow. The huge, record setting conflagrations of the Year 2000 fire season (the largest in over 50 years in terms of acres burned) were a direct result of nearly a century of aggressive, and costly, fire suppression policies -- policies driven by public ignorance of fire ecology and the desire of the timber industry to protect its investments for the short term.

Predictably, as the number and intensity of wildfires grow, so do the claims that more logging is needed to "prevent" them. No sooner had the year 2000 wildfire season gotten fully under way, than House Speaker J. Dennis Hastert of Illinois blamed the fires on logging reductions implemented by the Clinton administration. Montana governor Marc Racicot followed suit a short while later and attempted to blame the fires on Clinton's proposed Roadless Act even though it had not yet been implemented! (Word on the street is that he was attempting to position himself for an appointment as Interior Secretary under the Bush Administration). Racicot (a Republican, of course) told the Montana Wood Products Association that based on what he saw of the year 2000 fires, he wanted to "redo the entire legal framework" governing National Forests—including the Endangered Species Act, the National Environmental Policy Act, the Multiple Use-Sustained Yield Act, and the National Forest Management Act.

Bush Administration officials and conservative forums nationwide regularly refer to wildfires as "acts of God" that threaten public safety and require increases in the logging of unpopulated areas, even though over half of all wildfires are started by human carelessness and arson (it is common for firefighters to deliberately start fires in an attempt to create work for themselves and their colleagues, and there were several examples of this during the year 2000 fire season). Even the recent wildfires in California were used as a pretext for increased logging by Bush Administration officials despite the fact that they occurred in chaparral brush areas, not forests, and these have no commercial value.

World magazine, a Religious Right publication affiliated with Bob Jones University ran an article in September of 2003 (by Bob Jones Jr.) that was typical of the sort of press the year 2000 wildfire season got in ultra-conservative forums. World went so far as to claim that "old growth underbrush" was causing the fires 1 (naturally, they the blame for these fires fell on Democrats and environmentalists at the Sierra Club who don't want to cut old growth forests for profit). The article went on to describe several wildfires in Western Canada and U.S. National Forests (including the Shoshone National Forest) that actually occurred on heavily logged land nowhere near any old growth.

Even the cover photograph of this issue showed a group of onlookers examining a wildfire across a lake that was burning a non-old growth area (World, a favorite of the Religious Right and many Republican lawmakers currently in Congress, is known for their vociferous support of extreme Far-Right views and carelessness with scientific facts). The antienvironmental ad-hominem and amateurish research displayed in this article is typical of their reporting on virtually all environmental and public health related issues.

All of this is spread in the press and on Capital Hill in spite of nearly a century of fire ecology science. The World editorial is a particularly egregious example. It is a well known fact of fire ecology science that old growth does not develop the sort of underbrush fuel load that is characteristic of logged and secondary growth regions—exactly the sort of regions World's article discussed and presented as examples of "old growth" fires. It is commonplace for fires to spread uncontrolled through heavily logged and roaded National Forest land only to stop dead in their tracks when an old growth stand is encountered.

Even a modest review amount of the peer-reviewed scientific literature on the subject would have revealed this. But of course, like so many other antienvironmental forums, neither Jones nor anyone on World's editorial staff bothered to. And as always, this hysteria and scientific illiteracy leads directly to destructive policy. In the aftermath of the California wildfires and the year 2000 fire season, the Bush Administration's "Healthy Forests" initiative—which like his "Clear Skies" initiative, gives the term double-speak a whole new vibrancy and was based entirely on exactly this sort of illiteracy—was passed by Congress.

In light of all this the need for scientific literacy regarding forest and wildfire policy has never been greater.


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