BOISE, Idaho - Sluggish all morning, the Rabbit Creek fire swept up the North Fork of the Boise River with a fury Kevin Brown will not soon forget.
"It is very difficult
to put into words," said Brown, who was monitoring air traffic from
a helicopter over the wildfire last
understated," he said. "The fire burned from ridge to ridge, right
down to the bottom of the drainage. Then it just started walking up
the North Fork, a literal forced march. Nothing was going to stop
it. There wasn't anything we could do but watch."
One story among thousands. But it captures the
spirit of the 1994 fire season - a reign of flame as intense as it
was extraordinary. Thirty-three people died in the United States
fighting the fires of "94, the highest toll in more than half a
century. More than $1 billion in federal revenue was spent to
extinguish fires, the most costly year ever.
there is a larger, more troubling story about last year's fires,
one not readily captured by conventional disaster statistics or
sound-bites on the 6 o'clock news. Last year's fires were no random
outburst. They are part of a broad nebula of flame sweeping across
the West over the past decade. Yellowstone in 1988. Central Idaho
in 1992. South Canyon in Colorado in 1994.
factors fuel this fiery era, including drought, waves of
wood-boring insects and vast stands of dead and dying
But the biggest factor is close at hand:
It is ourselves. Land-management strategies have inadvertently
brought profound changes to the region's
Once, Western forests were dominated by
giant, thick-barked trees, widely spaced, so impervious to fire
that in places they were called "asbestos forests."
Today, those forests are spindly thickets of
ready-to-burn timber. Asbestos has turned to
The biggest factor is the most ironic:
Firefighting itself. Putting out all those wildfires has led to the
accumulation of massive amounts of timber and brush, and to the
overcrowding and poor health of the forest, conditions that are
feeding the blast-furnace fires of the "90s.
There's more to it than that, and no one has all the answers.
Sorting out the causes for this crisis is like trying to unravel
the roots of a disease. But logging is often cited for a supporting
role. Not just any logging. Some kinds of timber harvests improve
The kind that hurts, as luck
would have it, is the kind long favored in the region:
industrial-style logging that takes big, high-value trees and
leaves slash, debris and a crowded understory, a forest one spark
for the crisis is widely shared. But a fair amount falls on the
West's biggest manager of timberland, its biggest bank of forest
science expertise: the U.S. Forest Service. This view of fire as a
Frankenstein of our own making is emerging not from some obscure
branch of academia or the environmental movement but from those who
know fire best - fire scientists, land managers and firefighters
"All of our
successes have been setting us up for our worst defeats," said
Gerald Adams, a fire marshal in Incline Village, Nev., on the east
shore of Lake Tahoe. "We're encountering fuels and fire behavior
that I've never seen in my career. And I'm 53."
Last year, a widely regarded panel of wildfire experts, the
National Commission on Wildfire Disasters, put it this way:
"Uncontrollable wildfire should be seen as a failure of land
management and public policy, not as an unpredictable and
inevitable act of nature. The size, intensity, destructiveness and
cost of the wildfires of the 1980s and 1990s is no accident. It is
an outcome of our attitudes and priorities."
Today, talk of reform is growing. Out of last summer's ashes is
rising a land management metamorphosis, one rooted in better
knowledge of fire's natural role in Western forests and a desire to
use more fires to restore forest health and reduce flammability.
Fight fire with fire.
As Interior Department
Secretary Bruce Babbitt said last summer: "The message I'm hearing
is, "You guys at the top have got to do a better job of explaining
why prescribed burns in the shoulder seasons (fall and spring) are
Controversy, however, rages on
many fronts, raising questions about air quality, legal liability,
the need to protect endangered species and the use of logging to
mimic natural fire.
Most people, including many
newcomers, who like to live close to wild lands, are not
fire-friendly. Bambi and Smokey Bear have made sure of that. To
most Americans, fire remains a primal fear, a dragon to be slain at
Perhaps it's time to reconsider. As
veteran Forest Service fire scientist Robert Mutch in Montana said:
"We're changing our view of fire. We hope you will, too."
Like many eras, this one has had its Merlins,
its prophets who warned of things to come. Take fire from the land,
they said, and land will suffer. One such voice was Harold Weaver,
a forest supervisor on the Colville Indian Reservation in
Washington, who wrote in an article in the Journal of Forestry in
1943: "Complete prevention of forest fires has certain undesirable
ecological and silvicultural effects. Conditions are already
deplorable and are becoming increasingly serious. Fires, when they
do occur, are exceedingly hot and destructive and are turning
extensive areas of forests into brush fields."
Weaver was on to something. But hardly anybody listened. "Weaver
knew we were headed toward conflagrations," said Mutch. "The fires
of the future are here today."
beastly yesterday, too. The region has been scorched by examples,
such as the great Tillamook holocaust in Oregon in 1933, and the
Mann Gulch fire in Montana in 1949 that took 13 lives - and became
the basis for Norman Maclean's Young Men and Fire. But today,
specialists say wildfires are more nasty, more often. Fed by a
half-century's accumulation of brush and debris, wildfires have
become hemispheric events - North America's biggest
"At the rate we're
burning national forests now, there will be very little national
forests left in the West in 20 years," warned Larry Caplinger, one
of the government's leading fire strategists.
Last year was the wake-up call, a non-stop
season of flame that awed almost everyone who saw it. Boise, Reno
and other communities experienced their smokiest summers in
Nightmarish encounters were common: the
South Canyon "blow up" in Colorado that killed 14 people; the Tyee
Complex in Washington that whipped across 135,170 acres; the
Cottonwood fire in California that nearly devoured the small town
get a few days or a week or two of reprieve during a fire season,"
Arnold Hartigan, spokesman for the National Interagency Fire Center
in Boise, the nation's firefighting nerve center, said last fall.
"This year, we've had fire after fire after fire after fire after
If there is one thing that distinguishes
new fire from old, it is environmental damage. Modern blazes are
burning more than trees. They are nuking ecosystems - causing
massive soil erosion, habitat loss, damage to aquatic life and
calling these things "white ash" fires," Hartigan said. "Normally,
fire would scorch a tree. Now the entire tree is burned to white
"The huge fires of
today consume whole forests and watersheds," said Leon
Neuenschwander, a professor of forest resources at the University
of Idaho. "They burn all the way up to the trees' crowns, killing
even the biggest trees and everything else."
Huge chunks of ground are toasted. Since 1986, one-fourth of the
ponderosa pine forest on the Boise National Forest, about 550,000
acres, has been blackened.
1979, we had a 700-acre fire and it was a major event," said Lyn
Morelan, ecosystem coordinator for the Boise. "Now when we have a
30,000-acre fire, people say, "Oh, that's a small one." "''''Within
20 years, Morelan added, he expects 75 percent of the forest's
ponderosa pine to be devastated by fire.
ago, wildfires were often put out in a few days. Now it can take
weeks, sometimes more than a month. The pyrotechnics are
spectacular. Long tongues of flame, taller than 20-story buildings,
leap into the sky.
so hot, so intense, you don't get in front of them," said Richard
Wilson, director of California's Department of Forestry and Fire
"You get a change
in the weather. You run them into the ocean. You flank them and
wait for something to happen. We haven't got the equipment and the
ability to stop this kind of fire."
The region's fear of fire is longstanding, and
rooted in European-American settlement. Native Americans from the
Great Plains to California set fires, for many reasons, from
thinning vegetation to flushing game. So did some pioneers and
By 1886, the U.S. Cavalry was stamping
out that tradition in Yellowstone National Park - stamping out
wildfires. Twenty-four years later came a pivotal moment: the big
blow-up in the Northern Rockies.
For the young
Forest Service, the 1910 holocaust was too much to bear. Five
million acres were burned. Eighty-five people were killed, mostly
firefighters. The agency had found a
"The 1910 fires were
its Valley Forge, its Long March," said Stephen Pyne in Fire in
America. "Henceforth, it would throw all it had into the problem."
And so began America's war on fire. War is not
too strong a word. After World War I, one magazine said fallen
firefighters should be honored as "heroes of peace" who "died as
truly in the service of the country as did those of Flanders'
World War II brought a
more subtle weapon: Smokey Bear. Smokey taught millions of
Americans to hate fire, but not to understand it. "Smokey the Bear
has been very effective," said David Adams, a professor of forestry
at the University of Idaho. "Maybe too much so."
Anti-fire zeal grew and grew. After World War
II came firefighting Jeeps, bombers, helicopters - forerunners of
the huge firefighting apparatus that flashes across television
screens every summer. Even satellites have joined in, tracking
lightning strikes and flare-ups.
But as Pyne put
it in The New Republic last August: "All-out warfare is not a
useful way to think about our relationship with
"Withholding fire has,
in many landscapes, created a crisis in biotic health. It's the
environmental equivalent of the S&L; scandal. One manifestation
has been a catastrophic buildup of combustible biomass, stockpiles
of fuels unmatched in history," Pyne said. The problems are
regionwide. But one landscape seems to suffer most - majestic
ponderosa pine forests, which spread at the 3,000-to-7,500
elevation from Arizona to Washington, Montana to
These high, wide and lonesome
forests, heavily logged and protected from fire for more than a
century, originally evolved with fire. They need fire to survive,
create sunny openings, thin out the understory, nourish the soil.
Taking fire from the forest, scientists say, is like taking rain
from the sky.
In northern Arizona, one recent
study found that before settlement, the forest was dotted by 25 to
60 large ponderosa pines per acre. Today, after a century of fire
suppression, the same region is crowded with 275 to 850 trees per
acre, many of them spindly and diseased.
Idaho, another study found that one area which supported 28 trees
per acre a century ago now has 533. And 60 percent are dead. "These
forests are dying faster than they are growing," said Jay
O'Laughlin, director of the Forest, Wildlife and Range Policy Group
at the University of Idaho.
The problem is not
just too many trees. It's the wrong kind of trees. With fire no
longer cleaning out the understory, pines are being overwhelmed by
shadowy thickets of fir trees. Fir is not fire resistant. It is
fire-prone. Fir is feeding the super-novas
Not since the last Ice Age have such
powerful changes come to these forests, specialists
"We are teetering on the
brink of collapse in ponderosa pine ecosystems. I don't think
that's too strong a statement," said Mutch, the Montana fire
"Perhaps the most
devastating effect has been the eruption of increasingly large and
devastating "crown fires," which were not part of the evolutionary
experience of these systems," said Wallace Covington, a professor
of forest ecology at Northern Arizona
"On reflection, it
would be very difficult to design a more devastating assault on the
biodiversity of ponderosa pine ecosystems ... than what our
predecessors inadvertently did."
problem is one thing. Fixing it will be quite another. Credibility
of federal agencies is low. The landscape is also a minefield of
even question whether there is a crisis at all - or just another
campaign to cut more trees. Forest health, or forest
"In most areas, the fire
threat/forest health crisis is exaggerated," said Sami Yassa, a
staff scientist with the Natural Resource Defense Council. "It is a
pretext for business as usual: Get the cut out. Proposed cutting
will only exacerbate the problem."
just conservationists who are skeptical. Robert Hrubes, a
professional forester in California, has questions, too - many
aimed at his own profession and its penchant for Paul Bunyan
"To the extent the
forest health crisis is more than mere political expediency, it
calls into account those who have been managing the land for the
past 100 years - professional foresters," he said.
"More often than not, timber
harvesting prescriptions have been "high grades," "''''Hrubes said.
"Take the biggest trees ... and leave the rest. And do a sloppy job
in the process. Which means you end up with overstocked stands of
small diameter trees ... You end up with a fuel problem."
The Forest Service - which has turned
fire-fighting and big timber logging into traditions - is taking
most of the heat. Mutch, who spent his career with the agency
before retiring from the Intermountain Fire Sciences Laboratory in
Missoula last year, doesn't apologize.
you wonder, "My God, why did it take five decades for folks to wise
up?" There are some significant reasons," he said. "I don't offer
them as excuses. But fires like the 1910 Idaho fire, the Tillamook
fire and other large, devastating fires really created a culture
within the agency ...
a single-minded approach that all fires are bad and we're going to
exclude fire from the landscape - and manage forests through timber
harvest practices. And it's taken us a while to learn the error of
that approach." Today, it's time to stop pointing fingers and start
solving problems, Mutch said.
"Consensus is difficult but
we must find a way to get there," he said. "We have the science to
base it on. You look around the West and you have a hard time
finding a healthy ponderosa pine
"In the absence of
consensus," Mutch said, "we're going to see a severe, continuing
decline in human life, property and natural resources we all
Tom Knudson lives
in Truckee, California, where he writes for the Sacramento