Good policy and good intentions won't stop big wildfires

  • Santa Fe National Forest Fuels Specialist Program Manager Bill Armstrong in an area affected by the Las Conchas Fire.

    Eric Swanson
  • A Kings River Hotshots' Division T firefighter takes a break during a night burn operation conducted during New Mexico's 2011 Las Conchas Fire.

    Kari Greer
  • A tree torching in Arizona's 2011 Wallow Fire.

    Kari Greer
  • Regrowth peeks through the ashes of the Las Conchas Fire in late September.

    Eric Swanson
  • A member of the Kings River Hotshots' Division T performs a night burn operation during the Las Conchas Fire

    Kari Greer
  • An abundance of regrowth in Rocky Mountain National Park shows how fire can benefit a forested area.

    Scott Sticha, National Park Service
  • By the time New Mexico's Las Conchas Fire was contained in early August, it had burned more than 156,000 acres, including this area near Dixon's Apple Orchard at the mouth of Cochiti Canyon.

    Kari Greer

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Managers have more success steering wildfires in the backcountry, where flames can spread without endangering homes. There, they can take advantage of natural firebreaks like rocky cliffs while relying on behavior modeling to determine where a fire might go. According to the Forest Service, last year wildfires were allowed to consume built-up fuels on about 152,000 acres nationwide; this year, as of August, the figure was about 29,000 acres. But the policy allowing such "multiple objective" fires isn't handled uniformly. "It varies by region and the idiosyncrasies of different incident management teams," says Timothy Ingalsbee, director of the Oregon-based nonprofit Firefighters United for Safety, Ethics and Ecology. Putting out a fire is always the easiest call to make. "It's a blank check, it's the popular thing to do," says Greg Aplet, a fire scientist with The Wilderness Society. "In the heat of a wildfire, not many will argue that you ought to do nothing."

Even if the public wholeheartedly embraced the need for more burning and even if the agencies had an unlimited budget for forest restoration work, big, severe wildfires would still happen.  Large portions of the West are in a long-term cycle of drought. The region's climate has warmed between 2 and 5 degrees, on average, during the past century, according to researchers; those factors have increased the number and intensity of wildfires. A NASA model predicts that fire activity in the West might be 30 to 60 percent higher by the end of this century. As the fire season gets ever longer, there are fewer opportunities when conditions are right for controlled or prescribed burns, says Aplet. "The imperative to thin forests and address fuels is greater than ever. But whether it will be enough to hold off wholesale change in forests remains to be seen."

After the summer's dramatic coverage of the Southwest's huge fires, after the photos of ashen moonscapes left behind, after weeks of skies filled with haze from fires hundreds of miles away, it might be easy to feel depressed about the fact that, in all likelihood, wildfires are just going to keep getting bigger and hotter. Although those large fires will still provide environmental benefits, over time some Western forests may become much different than what we're used to -- more big patches of grass and shrubs that replace trees, more eroded slopes, more silted-up streams, more flooding. "These big fires reset the clock," says Armstrong, "but the results are not always what we as a species would like to see. We lose things humans hold dear, recreational opportunities and cherished places. All we can do is encourage resilience." He's talking about making forests more adaptable, but his words apply to all of us Westerners who choose to live near the woods.

As Falk points out, "The evolution of federal fire policy in the direction of allowing fires to burn on a landscape scale happened as result of very persistent effort, research and experimentation on the part of thousands of fire professionals in the West. We can't afford to give up. No matter how many setbacks you have, keep trying and experimenting, putting examples out there, doing research." The evolution and experimentation will continue, in the Forest Service and in other federal agencies. And while many progressive fire managers are already on the job, a new generation, thoroughly trained in fire ecology and computer modeling, will continue the push toward managing fire rather than just fighting it. "We're finally nurturing the  kind of managers needed to successfully implement this policy," says Ingalsbee.

Back in northern New Mexico, on Aug. 17, lightning sparked a wildfire five miles east of Ponderosa. It was right in the middle of a 12,000-acre area that the Santa Fe National Forest is planning to burn with a prescribed fire next year. But now, Mother Nature had jumpstarted the effort. Armstrong was delighted. "(The Guacamalla) fire is doing a wonderful job," he said. "The winds, the slopes, everything is in our favor. We have no control problems." By late September, the fire had crept across 1,600 acres of dense ponderosa thickets and conifers, in cooler, moist conditions. With any luck, said Armstrong, the fire would continue "skunking along," creating a light to moderate burn across hundreds more acres by the time the autumn rains put it out for good. "The Guacamalla's smoke is the smoke of hope," he said. "With current policies, we can make some headway. The only way to prevent big fires is with lots of small fires, like this one. The choice is not 'fire or no fire,' it's what kind of fire you want to see."

Jodi Peterson is HCN’s managing editor. She writes from Paonia, Colorado.