Fires still rage across the West. Grim-faced federal officials report over 6 million acres burned, twice the 10-year average. President Bush declared most of Colorado a disaster after Gov. Bill Owens pronounced the burned area in his state a "nuclear winter." This news hits outdoor-loving Americans in the gut as we assume all natural resources in the paths of the fires are lost: old-growth stands, trout pools, prairies - all destroyed.
Are they? We don't know. Worse yet,
no one knows.
Although federal agencies keep a
tally of the acres within the containment lines firefighters build
around each blaze, what happens inside the firelines is a
bureaucratic void. Beyond a handful of the most damaging fires,
officials do not track whether forest stands were devastated or
improved by fire, whether watersheds were hurt or helped, wildlife
habitat destroyed or enhanced.
We need to know.
Fire plays a crucial role in most Western ecosystems. At a time
when the public goal is to restore forests to a more natural state,
understanding where fires destroy and where they revitalize
ecosystems should be shaping management policies. It should be
helping firefighters decide which wildfires to put out and which to
monitor. Instead, the lack of data contributes to pressure to log
everything within the perimeter lines before bugs reduce it to
And it fuels public hysteria. Without
sound scientific information about what happens inside the
firelines, we have no way to evaluate the effects on ecosystems or
the real threats to communities. That leaves us at the mercy of
politicians who cater to the immediate demands of their
constituents, not the long-term needs of natural resources. In our
ignorance, we are left to assume that everything within the fire
perimeter is ruined. It hardly ever is.
backyard in northeastern California, the Storrie Fire started Aug.
17, 2000, and burned 56,000 acres near the Feather River. Tearing
up the steep canyon slopes, it romped through stands that had been
heavily logged and through pristine areas where no roads had ever
been built. Local loggers and environmentalists alike bemoaned the
devastation, some mourning the loss of sawlogs, others the beauty
of old-growth cathedrals.
exploration revealed far less catastrophe. Some forest stands
within the Storrie fire were truly scorched - the heat so intense
it cooked the soil, thwarting most new growth for years. Entire
hillsides were reduced to black specters towering over charred
But other places were not only spared
devastation; the fire improved them. Above Yellow Creek tiny oaks
were pushing through the soil beside still- smoking stumps. The
following spring, a profusion of lilies, paintbrush and penstemon
graced glades along Soda Creek, liberated by the fire from the
young white firs that had been rapidly takingover. The fire killed
several half-acre clusters of cedar, pine and red fir, creating
sun-filled openings for nature to start afresh. Here the ground
among the blackened snags was already green with tiny seedlings.
Most veteran trees survived, their needled
canopies intact, still shading an open forest floor. Flames licked
at their bases, sometimes marking the ancient trunks with black
streaks running up as high as 15 feet. The fire scoured out the
ground litter, cleansing mountainsides and creek canyons of decades
of debris. Evening grosbeaks flashed golden among pine branches and
fresh scratches in aspen bark marked the recent presence of a bear.
This was no "nuclear winter."
A U.S. Forest
Service review of the Storrie Fire estimated that 14 percent of the
area burned intensely. Two-thirds of it - an area twice the size of
Manhattan - enjoyed the creeping ground fires that forest managers
struggle to set in imitation of natural fire regimes.
That is the kind of data we need for fires
nationwide. Unfortunately, the Forest Service gathers it for fewer
than 1 percent of its wildfires. The information is collected to
stave off the worst erosion. It is not used for long-term planning.
Federal officials blame the dearth of data on
the agency's traditional preoccupation with fire suppression and
timber harvest, a decades-old double-whammy generating management
policies that ignore the role of natural fire in the evolution of
ecosystems. As public values for national forestlands shift from
sawlogs to recreation, managing wildfire becomes essential. We
can't manage what we don't know.
the effects of wildfire is part of understanding and restoring
Western ecosystems. Even armed with sound data about what happens
inside the firelines, federal officials may never quell the public
controversy over fire. Without it, they have no chance.