« Return to this article

for people who care about the West

What we don't know about wildfire can hurt us

  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 sawdust.


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.


In my 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.


My on-the-ground 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 ground.


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.


Understanding 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.

Jane Braxton Little is a contributor to Writers on the Range, a service of High Country News in Paonia, Colorado (hcn.org). She writes about environmental issues from Plumas County, California.