A losing battle

by Ray Ring

We’re spending billions to fight ‘catastrophic’ forest fires. But the big blowups will continue, whether we like it or not. For the forests, this may be good news.

BOISE, IDAHO

The campus of the National Interagency Fire Center, headquarters of the world’s largest wildfire-fighting empire, fills 23 buildings sprawled across 55 acres here on a bluff beside the city airport. Stan Legg leads me on a hike through one of the buildings, a big-box warehouse where the federal government has all kinds of gear ready for the coming fire season.

The warehouse makes Home Depot look like the corner market. On our right, Legg points out, we have 4,000 shovels. And over here, 10,000 pairs of flame-resistant jeans, and 8,000 flame-resistant shirts. We pass shelves filled with saws, hand tools, hoses, tents, canisters of fire foam, generators, boots, gloves, hard hats, goggles, sleeping bags, fire shelters, pumps, chain-saw kits (including chaps) and backpackable toilets (for wilderness fires).

"This cache can equip 8,000 people in the field," says Legg, the beefy former firefighter in charge of this inventory, worth $20 million.

In the other buildings, high-level fire managers and "fire intelligence" experts set the national tactics for attacking wildfires. Meteorologists receive satellite signals from more than 1,100 robot weather stations placed throughout the forests nationwide, and make predictions about where fires will break out and how they will behave.

When a call comes, the Interagency Fire Center can mount an attack to rival the U.S. Marines. Orders flash out to dozens of regional bases to mobilize air and ground forces — a fleet that includes hundreds of helicopters and planes, thousands of fire engines, bulldozers, graders, boats and a workforce of about 17,000 people, not counting all the temps, contractors, regular military forces, and firefighters from as far away as Australia, who get enlisted during the hottest times.

The empire is flush with manpower and equipment, due to a spectacular sixfold increase in federal wildfire spending since 1991. Roughly half that increase has come with the National Fire Plan, a behemoth created three years ago, which pumps billions into firefighting, and hundreds of millions into "fuels reduction" — the most ambitious effort ever to do vegetation thinning, prescribed burns and other treatments on millions of acres, in the name of fire control.

Driving it all is a powerful alliance of Republicans, Democrats, Old West and New West — all the people who have homes in the woods, the recreation and tourism businesses that don’t want smoky skies and shut-down forests, cities that don’t want reservoirs dirtied with fire runoff, loggers who don’t want trees to go to waste, ranchers who don’t want livestock forage to burn, the private firefighting industry that taps the cash flow, the politicians who serve all of them, and the agencies that want funding, chiefly the U.S. Forest Service, the Bureau of Land Management and the National Park Service.

Yet despite their sheer size and momentum — and the good intentions behind it all — the firefighting empire and the National Fire Plan amount to a massive case of denial. The painful truth is that wildfires — arguably, even the recent so-called "catastrophic" fires that turn vast acreage into smoking ruins — are a natural force that belongs on the land. The strongest evidence of that, ironically, is emerging right in the forest above the Fire Center headquarters, in the work of a lone researcher, who wears turquoise earrings and Carhartt overalls as she digs in the dirt. When word of her discovery spreads, the long denial may finally end, and there may be little left of our current wildfire policy that you’ll recognize.

Once you get obsessed with wildfires, as all Westerners should be, you pass through a kind of looking glass and begin to see all the land in terms of fire. As you travel around, you see that all the forests, as well as sagebrush and grassland, divide into two simple categories: that which is poised to burn, and that which is recovering from burning.

Fire’s prominence in shaping the landscape was recognized by the early 1900s, even as the Forest Service and the other land managers declared war on fire, trying to save the public timber supply and an increasing number of forest settlements. Even as the battles raged, a thread of heretical science explored fire’s beneficial effects, eventually proving that fire sweeps aside conifers to create aspen groves and meadows and berry patches. And that fire is the best recycler of nutrients. And that fire hardens the trees it kills so they last long enough for birds to nest in their hollowed trunks. And that many hundreds of species of plants and animals have evolved to depend on fires.

This science was long ignored, but the benefits of fire were finally acknowledged in the West in 1968, when the National Park Service began to allow a few lightning-sparked blazes to burn. Four years later, the Forest Service began to allow lightning-caused fires some room in wilderness areas. Prescribed burns — using drip torches to ignite fires — came into fashion. The "let it burn" policy seemed to be an awakening, and Yellowstone National Park became the showcase for it in 1988.

The park superintendent allowed lightning-sparked fires to grow and, encouraged by drought and winds, the fires blew up spectacularly, burning 800,000 acres — 36 percent of the park. Eventually, it became clear that, as the heretics had predicted, the fires rejuvenated the park’s ecosystem. But the war machine hardly missed a drumbeat. Nationwide news coverage emphasized the immediate effects — volcanic smoke, dead trees and scorched earth.

The same year, another "let it burn" lightning-sparked fire blew up on unexpected winds, this one in the Bob Marshall Wilderness in Montana. The Canyon Creek Fire escaped the wilderness boundary and roared through ranch property, burning a couple hundred cows, long fencelines, tons of hay, and six buildings.

Quietly, within the agencies, the Yellowstone and Canyon Creek fires combined to knock back the "let it burn" policy. For several years after 1988, fires no longer burned without a fight. Even today, land managers are cautious.

"Let it burn" fires that escape and cause problems for people can be "career-ending events," says Bob Clark, who runs the Joint Fire Science Program within the National Interagency Fire Center. "Managers are very reluctant to go out on a limb — they are risk-averse."

And wildfires are becoming more risky all the time, as they increasingly come up against the West’s explosive population growth, especially in the "wildland-urban interface," or Red Zone — neighborhoods that edge against wild land. Southern California brushfires in 1991, 1993 and 1996 destroyed a total of more than 3,100 homes and apartments. In 2000, a prescribed burn that blew out of control took more than 200 homes in Los Alamos, N.M., and fires in Montana’s Bitterroot Valley burned 70 homes. Last year, wildfires in Colorado and Arizona destroyed at least 550 homes.

Each time homes have burned, the political atmosphere has gotten more heated. And more and more, the homes — in the Red Zone and the cities — have cast their shadow over the forests, even deep into the backcountry. These days, we demand protection not only of houses and yards, but also the extended municipal watersheds, viewsheds, trail systems, air quality, and all the jobs based on tourism, logging and recreation.

As a result, this is our national wildfire policy today: If lightning strikes, we allow the wildfire to burn only if we have a detailed local fire plan in place that allows fire in that particular spot. The weather must be not too hot, dry or windy, the fuels situation must be right, the smoke must not be too thick in towns hundreds of miles away. We must have fire monitors and firefighters tending it, to make sure it doesn’t escape whatever boundaries we have set. And as soon as a major wildfire burns out of control elsewhere and strains the overall firefighting resources, or the moment that lives are lost anywhere on the front lines, the word goes out around the West to quell all fires until things quiet down.

In other words, our policy is "let it burn, except for almost everything." We snuff out more than 99 percent of wildfires.

Even with the National Fire Plan increasing the use of prescribed fires, the rules keep each of those fires small and polite. In a good year, in the entire West outside of Alaska, only 600,000 to 700,000 acres are allowed to burn — a small fraction of what is aching to ignite.

In general, even deep in wilderness, "the fires that are allowed to burn are the high-elevation ones that go nowhere," says Anne Black, with the federal Aldo Leopold Wilderness Research Institute in Missoula, Mont. "The ecologically important fires are the ones that get put out, because of the fear of them breaking the wilderness boundary. Right now, it’s only the most hard-core, passionate managers who really want fires, and they only burn under the most conservative conditions."

Case in point: the Green Knoll Fire of July 2001, ignited by a stray campfire ember in the Bridger-Teton National Forest near Jackson, Wyo., in lodgepole pine and subalpine fir. It’s a forest type that thrives on "stand-replacement" fires — high-intensity crown fires that take all the trees. Lodgepole seed cones crack open after fires, the seeds sprout on exposed soil, and the seedlings love full sunlight. But the Green Knoll Fire threatened more than 150 expensive homes, so it was declared the nation’s top firefighting priority. The attack force included helicopters, planes, dozers, fire engines, and ultimately, about 1,400 people. Firefighters wrapped many of the houses in gigantic sheets of heat-deflecting aluminum foil. The fire was contained at 4,400 acres, and no houses were lost. The cost to taxpayers: about $13 million.

And the Broad Fire in Yellowstone, in June 2002: Lightning struck in remote, rugged terrain, where the lodgepole pines had grown to dense old growth. "This area does need to burn," says Phil Perkins, the park’s fire management officer. In recent years, the park has let a few thousand acres burn, but in 2002, fires elsewhere in the West strained the system, and computer modeling showed that, in the worst case, the Broad Fire might blow up and burn a park village (which was six miles away, across the Grand Canyon of the Yellowstone River) or a gateway town (30 miles away). The attack was led by a Type 1 crew — 50 fire specialists that flew in, including fire managers, fire spokesmen and experts in safety, planning and finance. They called in more than 300 firefighters and 12 helicopters, containing the fire at 9,140 acres, at a cost of at least $3.5 million.

Wildfires still don’t cooperate with our policy and our plans, of course. And that rebellion is getting more pronounced. The big fire year of 1988 has been followed by more big years — 1994, 1996, and then 2000, which set the modern record for the most acres burned in the West since accurate record-keeping began in 1916. Then, in 2002, Colorado, Arizona and Oregon had their biggest individual fires on record.

"Catastrophic," exhibiting "extreme fire behavior" — a fearful new vocabulary describes the fires that escape our grasp these days. The monster fires can charge across tens of thousands of acres in a single day, shooting flame fronts hundreds of feet tall, burning more fiercely than the fires to which we’re accustomed.

Many of our best fire scientists sound the alarm, and they claim to know the cause of the monster fires: us. They say a century of fire suppression, combined with overgrazing and logging, has caused an "unnatural" buildup of trees and brush. As a result, they say, today’s fires are so extensive and hot that they ravage ecosystems.

Alarmed scientists get more attention than those who are not alarmed, so it can seem that the science aligns with homeowners and businesses, championing the firefighting and forest thinning. But actually, the science is not so clear. No two fires are alike, and every forest type reacts differently, but all forests evolved with fire. Many reports of fire damage are overblown.

In their reported size alone, the monster fires are exaggerated. Within a fire’s boundaries, much of the land is burned only moderately, or not at all, leaving a mosaic of vegetation. Where all vegetation is burned off, typically an invisible mosaic of roots, seeds and microbes survives in the soil. Soil damage is another of the exaggerations. Often we are told that the hottest fires ruin the soil by forming water-repellent "hydrophobic" layers under the surface. Not mentioned is the fact that such hydrophobic layers typically break down within two or three years.

The biggest monster last year? Oregon’s 500,000-acre Biscuit Fire left most of the tree canopies surviving on nearly 40 percent of the land it burned. Even in the most severely burned areas, fire-adapted plants, such as oaks, ferns, beargrass and kalmiopsis bushes, resprouted. The fire also opened habitat for a rare insect-eating pitcher plant, Darlingtonia californica, by killing Jeffrey pines and invading cedars.

"It was a large fire — it covered a lot of acres. But it was not remarkable in its physical effects," says Jon Brazier, a Forest Service hydrologist who studied the Biscuit fire. "The watersheds were not destroyed. The water quality is still good, the streams are in good shape — they are changed, but they are still functioning."

The second-biggest monster last year? Arizona’s 460,000-acre Rodeo-Chediski Fire destroyed 465 homes and 300 million board-feet of commercial timber, and left more than 100,000 acres burned so hot that they looked like a smoldering parking lot. But the fire also cleared away ponderosa pines and junipers that had invaded meadows and riparian areas. Studies predict a "long-term increase in watershed health."

The third-biggest monster last year? Colorado’s 137,000-acre Hayman Fire included "mass ignition of whole drainages," destroying 132 homes and threatening to soot up a reservoir of Denver’s drinking water. But 17 percent of the acreage was not burned, and another 51 percent burned at only "low intensity" or "moderate intensity," according to studies. Most of the burn was a mosaic, and is expected to recover rapidly. Long-term, the Hayman Fire should improve habitats for numerous rare species, including three-toed woodpeckers, Mexican spotted owls, northern goshawks, and a butterfly called the Pawnee montane skipper. The blanketflower, which thrives after fire, will likely create habitat for the rare Colorado firemoth.

This is not to say those fires were not catastrophes. They opened raw ground, forced the vegetation back to early successional stages, generated erosion, and invited potential invasions of weeds. They were magnificent catastrophes — the kind that can shake up an ecosystem.

"Stress is hard on individuals, but it’s good for ecosystems," says Tom Atzet, a Forest Service ecologist in Oregon. "People look at fire as an event, but it’s really a process. The important thing about fire is that it drives change, and stress, and evolution. These processes — fires, floods, drought — are what cause diversity.

"Will (an ecosystem) come back the same? Hell, no. But it will come back."

It is comforting to believe that catastrophic fires are something unnatural we have caused, because that implies we can stop them, with our forest thinning and other strategies. But that’s another assumption that may not pan out, says Jennifer Pierce.

Pierce, the third-generation geologist in Carhartts and turquoise earrings, scrapes the dirt with a shovel in the mountains just 50 miles from the National Interagency Fire Center in Boise. Around her is an entire landscape of multiple catastrophes. The place looks like it’s been bombed. A series of fires beginning in the late 1980s has burned about 1.5 million acres of federal, state and private land. The fires swept away vast expanses of vegetation on highly unstable, very steep slopes — and that caused many dozens of massive mudslides.

"Don’t call it a mudslide, please," Pierce says, as she crouches on one slide that settled beside the South Fork of the Payette River. "It’s a debris flow."

Pierce is working on a Ph.D. in geomorphology, the study of how landscapes are formed. In the layers of mud, she’s finding a record of fires that have burned through here in the past. Her work, published just a few weeks ago, is part of the cutting-edge fire science that may force land managers to rethink the age-old dogma that says catastrophic wildfires are the fault of humans.

Beginning only about 10 years ago, tree-ring researchers made the connection between fire and climate change, when they showed that widespread fires in the Southwest have erupted consistently over the past 300 to 400 years, on roughly the same schedule as the planet’s El Niño-La Niña weather cycle. Paleo-ecologists at the University of Oregon have looked even further back in time; examining lake sediments that contain ancient charcoal fragments, they are discovering that widespread fires have occurred during the warmer, drier periods in the Northwest and Northern Rockies, stretching back thousands of years.

The tree rings and lake sediments show a lot of fires during past warming spells, but are not so clear on how severe the fires were, says Pierce.

That falls into the realm of geomorphology. A catastrophic fire that denudes an entire slope and causes massive erosion leaves a telltale deposit of charcoal fragments and sediment at the bottom of the slope, where the debris flow helps build a fan-shaped deposit called an alluvial fan.

The first researcher to use alluvial fans to link catastrophic fires and climate was Pierce’s mentor, Grant Meyer, a geomorphology professor at the University of New Mexico. His 1995 paper, focusing on Yellowstone National Park, showed that the lodgepole pine forests there suffered catastrophic fires in sync with long-term climate shifts, with big flare-ups during what’s called the Medieval Warm Period — roughly 900 to 1200 A.D. During that period, lakes receded, treelines rose in elevation, and parts of the West were gripped by prolonged drought.

Meyer’s findings were groundbreaking, but not entirely surprising — they were in lodgepole pine forests, which are known to burn dramatically. But Pierce has been working in ponderosa pines, which are not thought to suffer catastrophic fires unless people have caused an unnatural buildup of fuels. Her research suggests that the recent catastrophic fires are not a human-caused anomaly. The ponderosa pines around here also suffered catastrophic fires during the Medieval Warm Period; those fires were likely not the result of anything people did back then.

"I would contend that catastrophic fires are natural in the Idaho ponderosa pines," Pierce says. It’s true across the different types of forests, she and Meyer have concluded, and warming trends and drought seem to be the main cause.

Climate swings naturally back and forth on a predictable rhythm. Right now, as everyone in the sunburned West can see, we are in another natural warming trend — likely compounded by our industrial emissions of greenhouse gases.

If climate is the main cause of the fires, then all our firefighting empire will amount to battling drought and global warming, slurry bucket by slurry bucket, saw-cut by saw-cut. Meyer has another strategy for slowing the fires: "Let’s worry about this warming problem, first and foremost, and see how we can work on that."

We don’t hear much from the policy-makers about the link between global warming and fires. Instead, those running the National Fire Plan say we should do more forest thinning and prescribed burns to help clear out the fuels, all to reduce the flammability of as much as 190 million acres nationwide (see story page 3). The costs are staggering — hundreds of dollars per acre on the low end, and as much as several thousand dollars per acre, depending on the condition of the forest. That would cover the first round of treatments. Over time, much of the land would have to be treated again and again, because the ecosystems don’t stand still.

Even many people in the firefighting empire admit, quietly, that it’s madness to imagine we could ever do that much. But it represents job security and a fresh flow of funding. In the Forest Service now, whether you’re a biologist or a timber staffer, "No matter what you’re doing, you can justify it by a fire you might have, or a fire you already had," says Randal O’Toole, who heads the Thoreau Institute think tank in Oregon.

But even the empire has limits. Recently, the Bush administration and Congress refused to cover $300 million of the $1.66 billion the agencies spent fighting fires last year; the Forest Service has to eat that cost internally, by delaying or canceling all kinds of other work, including many of the thinning projects that would supposedly help solve the problem.

More reasonable minds conclude that we must set priorities. Concentrate on the forests close to the houses and the city watersheds, and begin to assign responsibility, so the taxpayers don’t have to bear so many costs for what amounts to a lifestyle choice — building houses in the woods.

"There is no way we are going to get out ahead of wildfires on so many millions of acres," says Jonathan Oppenheimer, who used to track fire spending for Taxpayers for Common Sense in Washington, D.C., and now handles fire issues for the Idaho Conservation League. "The private property owners have the primary responsibility for making sure their homes don’t burn down. Why should taxpayers in Rhode Island provide fire insurance for people who live in Montana?"

Budget watchers, insurance companies and environmental groups are beginning to call for Red Zone residents to make their property fire-resistant, something that will surely collide with the usual anti-regulation fervor. Other predictable conflicts are already making reform difficult — collisions over whether loggers should take the old, big-diameter trees (which tend to be fire-resistant) to help pay for the thinning projects, and whether environmental regulations should be shoved aside so we can speed up the cutting. The evolution of our fire policy suffers the usual political and ideological catastrophes.

Roger Kennedy, who directed the National Park Service from 1993 to 1997, is among those who call for Red Zone residents to take responsibility. He also sees that the larger problem is global warming. "There’s no question at all" that the recent catastrophic fires are linked to global warming, he says. And the responsibility spreads far beyond the Red Zone — people everywhere in the global ecosystem contribute to the warming trend by driving cars, heating homes, using electricity from coal- and gas-fired power plants, and a hundred other things.

As we grope for an effective fire policy within the climate realities, science can be a beacon. As a beginning point, pretty much all fire scientists agree: Forest thinning and the other mechanical treatments will never replace the role of fire in recycling nutrients, or take the place of everything else that fire achieves. "We cannot thin our way to nirvana," says Jack Cohen, a researcher at the federal Fire Sciences Lab in Missoula, Mont. And prescribed fires will never replace the beneficial effects of true wildfires.

Scientists also agree that, with thinning or without it, fires are here to stay — and now we’re learning this includes some massive "catastrophic" fires. A realistic fire policy must acknowledge the inevitability of these big fires, impolite as they may be.

An effective fire policy will also attempt to undo the other insults we have heaped on the ecosystem over time — impacts that compound the negative effects of fire. Our mega-dams fracture river habitats; our thousands of forest-road culverts and water diversions fragment streams; farming and development remove sagebrush and grass habitat; we spread weeds and non-native fish, and on and on. We have broken up the forests so much that when a fire wipes out one patch, there may be no nearby patch to provide a refuge for native fish and birds, or to reseed the burned area.

"We have generated a stiffness up and down the ecosystems," says Cohen. That stiffness makes it more difficult to accept the stresses of fire. "If you’re already sick and you get beat up," says Atzet, "that’s worse than if you get beat up when you’re not sick."

Right now, we’re siphoning only a few million dollars from the firefighting empire into attempts to restore forests. It’s reasonable to invest more in restoration, in more creative ways.

Beavers, for instance, used to help make forests fire-resistant around the West. As beavers created their natural networks of leaky dams and pools, they slowed runoff, enhanced stream braiding, and created large riparian areas. Today, the West has only 10 percent of the beaver population it once had. As a result, the riparian areas have shrunk, water tables have dropped, and many streams no longer flow year-round. When a fire breaks out, the dry streambeds and remnants of riparian habitat are vulnerable.

Perhaps we could siphon off a few hundred million dollars into a National Beaver Plan, and take a few more reasonable steps. Then, we could stand back and let the forests burn.

We may not have much choice about the latter.

Ray Ring, HCN’s editor in the field, writes from Bozeman, Montana. He can be reached at rayring@hcn.org.

More resources:

• National Fire Plan, www.fireplan.gov

• National Interagency Fire Center Boise, Idaho, public information officer Don Smurthwaite, 208-387-5512, www.nifc.gov/

• Grant Meyer University of New Mexico in Albuquerque, 505-277-5384, www.unm.edu/facstaff/gmeyer/home.htm

• Fire Sciences Lab Missoula, Mont., www.firelab.org

• Advice for homeowners in the Red Zone Firewise, by the National Wildfire Coordinating Group, a consortium of wildland fire agencies that includes the U.S. Forest Service, Dept. of Interior, the National Association of State Foresters, the U.S. Fire Administration and the National Fire Protection Association, www.firewise.org

Living with Fire, a guide for the homeowner, coordinated by the University of Nevada-Reno, www.unce.unr.edu/fire

• Radio High Country News and Writers on the Range feature additional fire coverage. Log on to www.hcn.org

• To order High Country News’ Special Report, Fire in the West call 1-800-905-1155.

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