Monster wildfires have become the new normal

by Roy Keene and Tim Hermach

The wildfire historian Stephen Pyne calls Arizona's Wallow Fire a "monster." "Burning along the trajectory that every major fire in the region has followed, it will burn until the rains come,"
he predicts.

In 2002, the 500,000-acre Biscuit Fire in Oregon was a similar monster. Burning largely in the wild, it torched thinned and unthinned timber, young plantations on dry south-facing slopes and ancient forest stands on moist northern ones. When the wind and heat reached their zenith, vegetation was consumed regardless of its size, species or spacing.

At a cost of $155 million, the Biscuit became the most expensive fire in history. And firefighters never did stop it; it was only halted by the rains that autumn. Afterwards, the naturally recovering area was hammered by brutal salvage logging. A half-billion board-feet of public timber was awarded at fire-sale prices.

What have we learned from today's gigantic wildfires? Some claim that large-scale logging will reduce the spread or severity of these conflagrations. This turns out to be more myth than fact. Historically, logging has ignited or fueled more forest fires than it's prevented. Unpredictable and chaotic, big fires are climate-and weather-driven; they defy predefined behavior.

Timothy Ingalsbee, the executive director of Firefighters United for Safety, Ethics and Ecology in Eugene, Ore., writes that giant fires are "sensationalized by the media like military campaigns." They resemble war in another way: Fighting fires can often do more damage than good.

Ingalsbee's conclusions should be studied and considered by any politician or forest manager who has to cope with wildfire. Among his most important recommendations are launching a national campaign to educate people about fire ecology, creating a national fire plan that focuses on preparing communities, analyzing the risks, costs and impacts of aggressive firefighting and suppression, and discontinuing fire suppression as a management goal.

Meanwhile, expect to hear politicians blaming the Wallow Fire on a century of fire suppression, or perhaps on the environmental groups that sued to prevent pre-emptive logging. Neither has been as damaging to the West as logging.

Some who track forest fires also point to arson as a possible culprit. When fighting a fire, federal agencies enjoy relatively unlimited budgets. Workers put in 100-hour weeks, bulldozers contract at double the going rates, and mills buy scorched but sound timber for a dime on the dollar. Wildfires have become a cash cow for federal forest managers as well as the firefighting and timber industries.

Wildfires also create political opportunity. Two days before President Bush came to Oregon to sell his 2003 "Healthy Forests" Initiative, two timely forest fires (the B&B fires) ignited "by lightning" -- or something else -- spread into a big blaze to become a convenient political backdrop and marketing tool.

Though it was supposed to create fire-resistant forests, Bush's initiative -- a logging plan -- did just the opposite. Ground reviews of timber sales conducted under this initiative exposed most of the operations as blatant timber grabs. Large old trees that had successfully resisted earlier fires were cherry-picked for cutting, fuels were increased by piles of logging slash, soils were hammered and residual stands were left without shade to dry out and burn hotter.

New political ploys to increase logging to reduce wildfire should be carefully evaluated. Because of the financial clout of big timber corporations and the fact that national forests are still budgeted by Congress to get the cut out, calls for logging are difficult to resist. But there's very little in logging that restores forests or mimics natural fire. Wildfire doesn't build roads, compact soils or leave heaps of slash. Wildfire fertilizes, releases and sprouts native seeds, shrubs and trees instead of spreading exotic weeds and increasing herbicide use.

One of us -- Roy Keene -- has worked for 40 years to restore forests damaged by wildfire. He's says what's really needed to reset our overly dense and dry forests is chainsaw and drip-torch work, rather than more logging. That means crews go in to cut, lop and scatter or pile and burn excess small stems and fine fuels, especially along roads and around structures. It's work that uses simple equipment and employs lots of workers. Unlike logging, it's small-scale prescribed burning and cutting, and it is routinely effective. Even more effective, of course, would be prohibiting people from building flammable homes next to or in forests that are sure to burn. At the least, such homeowners should never expect firefighters and taxpayers to pay with their lives and dollars.

This is the kind of safe and specific forest work that environmental organizations could -- and should -- be supporting, rather than collaborative efforts controlled by industry that push reactionary and risky logging.

The writers are contributors to Writers on the Range, a service of High Country News (hcn.org). Tim Hermach is the director of the Native Forest Council, a nonprofit group in Eugene, Oregon. Roy Keene is a forester who has served as Native Forest Council's volunteer forester since 1991.

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