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Know the West

Yelling fire in a crowded West


I was in Jackson, Wyo., in fall 1988, right after Yellowstone National Park burned to the ground. School children were contributing nickels and dimes to build it back up, and there was a lynch-mob attitude in the town toward the National Park Service and other federal agencies (HCN, 9/26/88).

Today, the Yellowstone fires are celebrated as an act of rebirth. The park has never looked so healthy and there has never been so much wildlife habitat.

I also remember the 1994 South Canyon fire outside Glenwood Springs, Colo., - the one that killed 14 young firefighters. A few weeks later, I saw Perry Pendley on a Denver TV station, explaining the significance of the fire. Pendley, head of the Mountain States Legal Foundation, said the fault lay with anti-logging environmentalists. Although he was on educational television, no one on the program said that the fire was on a steep hillside, and that it was mostly scrub oak trees that had burned. These are trees that some cut for firewood, but no logging company I know of has ever logged them for two-by-fours.

We can expect more hysteria and distortion in the wake of the Los Alamos fire: a fierce blaming attitude toward federal agencies and suggestions that we log the heck out of the land to save houses.

The situation is more complicated than that. In part, the fires are burning because we have already logged the heck out of the West. In the wake of that logging, especially among ponderosa pine in the Southwest, thousands of small trees per acre have grown up. The fires that might have thinned those trees in earlier centuries were suppressed in the 20th century. So we have ended up with dog-hair forests, filled with small and fire-prone trees.

Even where forests have not been logged, fires have been suppressed, and brush and fallen trees have accumulated, creating the conditions for vast, all-consuming fires.

This was bad enough before the 1990s residential boom, when Western towns were still relatively compact. But over the past decade, people have been building homes on ridge lines and dragging trailers into the brush as if the vegetation were made of asbestos. The urban-rural interface, as planners like to say, has been turned into one sprawling urban-rural mess.

Many saw the fires coming. In California's northern Sierra Nevada Range, the Quincy Library Group was formed by environmentalists and timber interests to deal with snaggly, fire-prone forests that come to the edges of small towns. The fact that logging was part of the group's agenda turned many environmental groups against its proposals, and the Quincy effort has become mired in controversy (HCN, 9/29/97: The timber wars evolve into a divisive attempt at peace). If the kinds of fires that are raging around Los Alamos come to the Quincy area, the controversy will be over, and the loggers will have free access to anything that hasn't burned.

Closer to Los Alamos, around Flagstaff, Ariz., a less controversial consensus process involving environmentalists, the Forest Service and academic foresters is attempting to restore to health the second-growth ponderosa pine forests that irresponsible logging left behind and that now threaten that town (HCN, 3/1/99: Flagstaff searches for its forests' future). The plan is to thin millions of small trees, leaving the survivors to grow large. Once the spared trees get bigger, and fire-resistant thanks to their thick bark, controlled burns will be set to clear the underbrush. If all goes well, by the end of this century, Flagstaff will once again be surrounded by a fireproof forest consisting of a dozen or so towering ponderosa pine trees per acre set in a grassland. There are no quick cures in this business.

Overgrown, fire-prone conditions also hold at lower elevations, where large parts of the Southwest and the Great Basin have become clogged with pinon and juniper trees. At one time, these trees were confined to rocky areas by grass fires that periodically swept young trees away. But close grazing by cattle and sheep stopped those fires, and after a century, piûon-juniper now blanket the area.

One day, nature will almost certainly reset the ecological clock, and this vast, unnatural forest will burn, taking towns and watersheds with it (HCN, 4/15/96: Raising a ranch from the dead).

The answer is very simple and very hard: It is to realize that nature bats last, and she swings from the heels. If we are to live with her magnificent, destructive, life-renewing rampages, we must get smart, fast. We have to resist building houses in fire-prone forests or scrublands; we have to let natural fires or controlled burns eliminate dead vegetation before it builds to high levels; and we have to resist an angry, blaming approach when fire does strike.

The only way we will escape the frying pan without falling into the fire is to collaborate, learn from the scientists, and resist the urge to blame each other. Instead of yelling "fire" in the increasingly crowded theater that is the West, we must talk softly, but act forcefully and intelligently.

Ed Marston is publisher of High Country News.