Fires illuminate the West's 'ecological darkness'

  • Hot Shot firefighters from Prineville, Oregon, hours before nine die

    Dave Frey
  • Smoke jumpers watch as fire engulfs the hillside where ateam works

    Dave Frey

As smoke continues to rise from fires in the West, investigators search the ashes of Storm King Mountain near Glenwood Springs, Colo., to determine why 14 firefighters died. Like the deadly Mann Gulch Fire of 1949, chronicled in Norman Maclean's Young Men and Fire, the crew was caught in a "blowup," a nightmare situation where hundreds of acres are reduced to ashes in minutes.

It is clear the firefighters were unable to outrun the Canyon Creek fire on the rugged, steep terrain when 50-mile-an-hour winds blasted the fire upslope. But until a fire investigation team comprised of officials from the Bureau of Land Management, Forest Service, and National Weather Service releases its findings in late August, the specifics of the tragedy will remain unknown.

With over a month left of the usual fire season, the West is reeling from the devastation of wildfires earlier this summer. According to the Associated Press, 1.3 million acres burned in nine Western states by early July. The fires involved 7,400 firefighters, 240 fire engines, 55 helicopters and 25 air tankers. The areas burned ranged from 3,600 acres in Wyoming to over 75,000 acres in southern New Mexico. In Colorado, 21,000 acres burned, mostly on the state's Western Slope but also along the Front Range near Denver and Fort Collins.

Gardner Ferry, a fire manager with the National Interagency Fire Center in Boise, Idaho, says the Western forests were withered from drought that persisted from 1987 to 1992. Last year, above-average rainfall and snowpack allowed grasses to flourish, but moisture levels in the timber never returned to normal. This summer grasses dried into kindling from record high heat, which helped blazes quickly spread to the forest canopy.

Fire costs are shared by local and state governments and federal land-management agencies, making the total spent difficult to determine. The cost will likely soar into the tens of millions of dollars. Colorado has already spent $1.5 million, says Ron Zeleny, a supervisor for the state forestry department.

The Fire Center's Ferry says some of the areas already hit hard by fire, such as New Mexico, Arizona and Colorado, are less dry than forests in the Northwest, where the impact of fires this season is light so far. "We're anticipating a very bad fire season. If there's a lot of lightning, we are going to be in trouble."

Some fire experts say aggressive wildfire suppression by land managers over the past century has led to a dangerous accumulation of dead trees and shrubs and increased the density of trees per acre. This has left the forests on private, state and federal land ripe for large, intense fires.

Most experts say the forests we see today bear little resemblance to the forests of a few hundred years ago. Forests growing at lower elevations - particularly ponderosa pine and inland Douglas-fir - historically resembled savannas more than the densely packed stands of trees common today, they say. Before the 20th century, the forest canopy was open, fallen trees were less prevalent, and grasses carpeted the forest floor. In these areas, fire burned out the duff and deadfall every 3 to 10 years without igniting the mature living trees.

Few forests are in poorer health than the Wallowa-Whitman National Forest in Oregon's Blue Mountains. Francis Mohr, a wilderness fire planner for the forest, says the exclusion of fire has led to overcrowding of timber. As the density of trees per acre increases, he says, the trees compete with one another for resources, leaving them weakened and open to attack by insects like the mountain pine beetle and spruce budworm.

While Mohr and other forest managers admit fire suppression is partly responsible for the large fuel load in Western forests, they say changing the practice is difficult. Some BLM districts and national forests set controlled burns to reduce deadfalls, pine needles, and standing dead or dying timber. But many people - especially homeowners in forested areas - fear burns will get out of control and torch their homes.

"People are putting houses where they never were before," says Ferry. "But they expect the same (fire) protection they have in cities."

The policy of the departments of Interior and Agriculture is to suppress all wildfires as soon as possible, whether they are caused by lightning or humans. Some wilderness areas, like the Selway-Bitterroot in Idaho and the Eagle Cap in Oregon, have fire-management plans that allow naturally started wildfires to burn, but only if the forest supervisor is sure there are adequate firefighters, equipment, and other resources to keep a fire under control. Moreover, because some of the fires that scorched Yellowstone in 1988 were allowed to burn under a similar plan, forest managers are wary of letting natural fires track their own course.

Another reason land managers are reluctant to burn is that their agencies become liable for any property damage. Agency timidity leads to prescribed fires set far from urban areas.

"The situation in the Western forests is the environmental equivalent of the savings and loan scandal," says fire historian Stephen Pyne of Arizona State University West. "The same land agencies that contributed to the problem now want the money to solve things." Pyne also says that under the current system, federal agencies are allocated more money to fight forest fires than to set controlled burns.

An agency alternative to controlled burning is salvage logging, which removes dead trees and helps prevent insect infestations from spreading. Salvage sales are planned on many forests throughout the West this summer. The largest operation in modern history is slated to begin in the next few weeks near the Nevada-California border at Lake Tahoe, along 6,600 acres on the east shore of the lake.

Salvage logging's critics say it is the wrong answer to the threat of fire, and they plan to appeal the sales.

"Salvage logging actually increases fire danger in the short term," says Dan Heinz of American Wildlands, in Reno, Nev. "It is clearly an economic activity and not fire prevention."

Rochelle Nason, a member of the League to Save Lake Tahoe, agrees. She says logging projects that remove the older and larger trees, while leaving behind the brush and branches, aggravate fire danger, reduce biodiversity and damage watersheds.

Roland Shaw, supervisor of salvage sales for Nevada's Toiyabe National Forest, agrees that the intent of the sales is economic, but notes that proceeds from the operation will finance prescribed burning, brush disposal and tree planting in the logged areas.

Pyne says unless the fuel is reduced in the forests, either by controlled burning or other means, the threat of large, destructive fires remains. "The ecological darkness is growing," he says. "Lack of money, political will, and a consensus on how to solve the problem make it difficult to find a solution."

By not tackling the problem, he says, "we are reducing our margin for error."

A consequence of this inaction, one observer notes, is risking firefighters to battle blazes that should be allowed to burn. Jim Carrier, columnist with the Denver Post, said the steep slopes on the outskirts of Glenwood Springs were a tinderbox waiting to burn. "Firefighters were there because the BLM's prescription called for fire suppression as soon as possible," Carrier said. "Someday, when the embers and emotions cool, someone should question the "noble" cause in Colorado that became a trail of ashes."

Donica Mensing, HCN Great Basin intern, contributed to this report.

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