I was in Jackson, Wyo., in fall 1988, right after Yellowstone National Park burned to the ground. School children were contributing nickels and dimes to build it back up, and there was a lynch-mob attitude in the town toward the National Park Service and other federal agencies (HCN, 9/26/88).
Today, the Yellowstone fires are
celebrated as an act of rebirth. The park has never looked so
healthy and there has never been so much wildlife
I also remember the 1994 South Canyon
fire outside Glenwood Springs, Colo., - the one that killed 14
young firefighters. A few weeks later, I saw Perry Pendley on a
Denver TV station, explaining the significance of the fire.
Pendley, head of the Mountain States Legal Foundation, said the
fault lay with anti-logging environmentalists. Although he was on
educational television, no one on the program said that the fire
was on a steep hillside, and that it was mostly scrub oak trees
that had burned. These are trees that some cut for firewood, but no
logging company I know of has ever logged them for two-by-fours.
We can expect more hysteria and distortion in
the wake of the Los Alamos fire: a fierce blaming attitude toward
federal agencies and suggestions that we log the heck out of the
land to save houses.
The situation is more
complicated than that. In part, the fires are burning because we
have already logged the heck out of the West. In the wake of that
logging, especially among ponderosa pine in the Southwest,
thousands of small trees per acre have grown up. The fires that
might have thinned those trees in earlier centuries were suppressed
in the 20th century. So we have ended up with dog-hair forests,
filled with small and fire-prone trees.
where forests have not been logged, fires have been suppressed, and
brush and fallen trees have accumulated, creating the conditions
for vast, all-consuming fires.
This was bad
enough before the 1990s residential boom, when Western towns were
still relatively compact. But over the past decade, people have
been building homes on ridge lines and dragging trailers into the
brush as if the vegetation were made of asbestos. The urban-rural
interface, as planners like to say, has been turned into one
sprawling urban-rural mess.
Many saw the fires
coming. In California's northern Sierra Nevada Range, the Quincy
Library Group was formed by environmentalists and timber interests
to deal with snaggly, fire-prone forests that come to the edges of
small towns. The fact that logging was part of the group's agenda
turned many environmental groups against its proposals, and the
Quincy effort has become mired in controversy (HCN, 9/29/97: The
timber wars evolve into a divisive attempt at peace). If the kinds
of fires that are raging around Los Alamos come to the Quincy area,
the controversy will be over, and the loggers will have free access
to anything that hasn't burned.
Closer to Los
Alamos, around Flagstaff, Ariz., a less controversial consensus
process involving environmentalists, the Forest Service and
academic foresters is attempting to restore to health the
second-growth ponderosa pine forests that irresponsible logging
left behind and that now threaten that town (HCN, 3/1/99: Flagstaff
searches for its forests' future). The plan is to thin millions of
small trees, leaving the survivors to grow large. Once the spared
trees get bigger, and fire-resistant thanks to their thick bark,
controlled burns will be set to clear the underbrush. If all goes
well, by the end of this century, Flagstaff will once again be
surrounded by a fireproof forest consisting of a dozen or so
towering ponderosa pine trees per acre set in a grassland. There
are no quick cures in this business.
fire-prone conditions also hold at lower elevations, where large
parts of the Southwest and the Great Basin have become clogged with
pinon and juniper trees. At one time, these trees were confined to
rocky areas by grass fires that periodically swept young trees
away. But close grazing by cattle and sheep stopped those fires,
and after a century, piûon-juniper now blanket the area.
One day, nature will almost certainly reset the
ecological clock, and this vast, unnatural forest will burn, taking
towns and watersheds with it (HCN, 4/15/96: Raising a ranch from
The answer is very simple and very
hard: It is to realize that nature bats last, and she swings from
the heels. If we are to live with her magnificent, destructive,
life-renewing rampages, we must get smart, fast. We have to resist
building houses in fire-prone forests or scrublands; we have to let
natural fires or controlled burns eliminate dead vegetation before
it builds to high levels; and we have to resist an angry, blaming
approach when fire does strike.
The only way we
will escape the frying pan without falling into the fire is to
collaborate, learn from the scientists, and resist the urge to
blame each other. Instead of yelling "fire" in the increasingly
crowded theater that is the West, we must talk softly, but act
forcefully and intelligently.