How the West's asbestos fires were turned into tinderboxes

  • It's not a fluke... and this summer, the West will burn again/Randy Pench/Sacr. Bee

  • Flag flies at half mast where 14 firefighters died/Casey A. Cass/Glenwood Post

  • Firefighters head for home two days after deadly fire/Casey A. Cass/Glenwood Post


BOISE, Idaho - Sluggish all morning, the Rabbit Creek fire swept up the North Fork of the Boise River with a fury Kevin Brown will not soon forget.

"It is very difficult to put into words," said Brown, who was monitoring air traffic from a helicopter over the wildfire last September.

"Awesome seems understated," he said. "The fire burned from ridge to ridge, right down to the bottom of the drainage. Then it just started walking up the North Fork, a literal forced march. Nothing was going to stop it. There wasn't anything we could do but watch."

One story among thousands. But it captures the spirit of the 1994 fire season - a reign of flame as intense as it was extraordinary. Thirty-three people died in the United States fighting the fires of '94, the highest toll in more than half a century. More than $1 billion in federal revenue was spent to extinguish fires, the most costly year ever.

But there is a larger, more troubling story about last year's fires, one not readily captured by conventional disaster statistics or sound-bites on the 6 o'clock news. Last year's fires were no random outburst. They are part of a broad nebula of flame sweeping across the West over the past decade. Yellowstone in 1988. Central Idaho in 1992. South Canyon in Colorado in 1994.

Many factors fuel this fiery era, including drought, waves of wood-boring insects and vast stands of dead and dying timber.

But the biggest factor is close at hand: It is ourselves. Land-management strategies have inadvertently brought profound changes to the region's forests.

Once, Western forests were dominated by giant, thick-barked trees, widely spaced, so impervious to fire that in places they were called "asbestos forests."

Today, those forests are spindly thickets of ready-to-burn timber. Asbestos has turned to gasoline.

The biggest factor is the most ironic: Firefighting itself. Putting out all those wildfires has led to the accumulation of massive amounts of timber and brush, and to the overcrowding and poor health of the forest, conditions that are feeding the blast-furnace fires of the "90s.

There's more to it than that, and no one has all the answers. Sorting out the causes for this crisis is like trying to unravel the roots of a disease. But logging is often cited for a supporting role. Not just any logging. Some kinds of timber harvests improve forest health.

The kind that hurts, as luck would have it, is the kind long favored in the region: industrial-style logging that takes big, high-value trees and leaves slash, debris and a crowded understory, a forest one spark from inferno.

Responsibility for the crisis is widely shared. But a fair amount falls on the West's biggest manager of timberland, its biggest bank of forest science expertise: the U.S. Forest Service. This view of fire as a Frankenstein of our own making is emerging not from some obscure branch of academia or the environmental movement but from those who know fire best - fire scientists, land managers and firefighters themselves.

"All of our successes have been setting us up for our worst defeats," said Gerald Adams, a fire marshal in Incline Village, Nev., on the east shore of Lake Tahoe. "We're encountering fuels and fire behavior that I've never seen in my career. And I'm 53."

Last year, a widely regarded panel of wildfire experts, the National Commission on Wildfire Disasters, put it this way: "Uncontrollable wildfire should be seen as a failure of land management and public policy, not as an unpredictable and inevitable act of nature. The size, intensity, destructiveness and cost of the wildfires of the 1980s and 1990s is no accident. It is an outcome of our attitudes and priorities."

Today, talk of reform is growing. Out of last summer's ashes is rising a land management metamorphosis, one rooted in better knowledge of fire's natural role in Western forests and a desire to use more fires to restore forest health and reduce flammability. Fight fire with fire.

As Interior Department Secretary Bruce Babbitt said last summer: "The message I'm hearing is, 'You guys at the top have got to do a better job of explaining why prescribed burns in the shoulder seasons (fall and spring) are important.' "

Controversy, however, rages on many fronts, raising questions about air quality, legal liability, the need to protect endangered species and the use of logging to mimic natural fire.

Most people, including many newcomers, who like to live close to wild lands, are not fire-friendly. Bambi and Smokey Bear have made sure of that. To most Americans, fire remains a primal fear, a dragon to be slain at any cost.

Perhaps it's time to reconsider. As veteran Forest Service fire scientist Robert Mutch in Montana said: "We're changing our view of fire. We hope you will, too."

Like many eras, this one has had its Merlins, its prophets who warned of things to come. Take fire from the land, they said, and land will suffer. One such voice was Harold Weaver, a forest supervisor on the Colville Indian Reservation in Washington, who wrote in an article in the Journal of Forestry in 1943: "Complete prevention of forest fires has certain undesirable ecological and silvicultural effects. Conditions are already deplorable and are becoming increasingly serious. Fires, when they do occur, are exceedingly hot and destructive and are turning extensive areas of forests into brush fields."

Weaver was on to something. But hardly anybody listened. "Weaver knew we were headed toward conflagrations," said Mutch. "The fires of the future are here today."

Fires were beastly yesterday, too. The region has been scorched by examples, such as the great Tillamook holocaust in Oregon in 1933, and the Mann Gulch fire in Montana in 1949 that took 13 lives - and became the basis for Norman Maclean's Young Men and Fire. But today, specialists say wildfires are more nasty, more often. Fed by a half-century's accumulation of brush and debris, wildfires have become hemispheric events - North America's biggest bonfires.

"At the rate we're burning national forests now, there will be very little national forests left in the West in 20 years," warned Larry Caplinger, one of the government's leading fire strategists.

Last year was the wake-up call, a non-stop season of flame that awed almost everyone who saw it. Boise, Reno and other communities experienced their smokiest summers in years.

Nightmarish encounters were common: the South Canyon "blow up" in Colorado that killed 14 people; the Tyee Complex in Washington that whipped across 135,170 acres; the Cottonwood fire in California that nearly devoured the small town of Loyalton.

"Generally, you get a few days or a week or two of reprieve during a fire season," Arnold Hartigan, spokesman for the National Interagency Fire Center in Boise, the nation's firefighting nerve center, said last fall. "This year, we've had fire after fire after fire after fire after fire."

If there is one thing that distinguishes new fire from old, it is environmental damage. Modern blazes are burning more than trees. They are nuking ecosystems - causing massive soil erosion, habitat loss, damage to aquatic life and biodiversity itself.

"We're calling these things 'white ash' fires," Hartigan said. "Normally, fire would scorch a tree. Now the entire tree is burned to white ash."

"The huge fires of today consume whole forests and watersheds," said Leon Neuenschwander, a professor of forest resources at the University of Idaho. "They burn all the way up to the trees' crowns, killing even the biggest trees and everything else."

Huge chunks of ground are toasted. Since 1986, one-fourth of the ponderosa pine forest on the Boise National Forest, about 550,000 acres, has been blackened.

"In 1979, we had a 700-acre fire and it was a major event," said Lyn Morelan, ecosystem coordinator for the Boise. "Now when we have a 30,000-acre fire, people say, 'Oh, that's a small one.' " Within 20 years, Morelan added, he expects 75 percent of the forest's ponderosa pine to be devastated by fire.

Years ago, wildfires were often put out in a few days. Now it can take weeks, sometimes more than a month. The pyrotechnics are spectacular. Long tongues of flame, taller than 20-story buildings, leap into the sky.

"They are so hot, so intense, you don't get in front of them," said Richard Wilson, director of California's Department of Forestry and Fire Protection.

"You get a change in the weather. You run them into the ocean. You flank them and wait for something to happen. We haven't got the equipment and the ability to stop this kind of fire."

The region's fear of fire is longstanding, and rooted in European-American settlement. Native Americans from the Great Plains to California set fires, for many reasons, from thinning vegetation to flushing game. So did some pioneers and ranchers.

By 1886, the U.S. Cavalry was stamping out that tradition in Yellowstone National Park - stamping out wildfires. Twenty-four years later came a pivotal moment: the big blow-up in the Northern Rockies.

For the young Forest Service, the 1910 holocaust was too much to bear. Five million acres were burned. Eighty-five people were killed, mostly firefighters. The agency had found a mission.

"The 1910 fires were its Valley Forge, its Long March," said Stephen Pyne in Fire in America. "Henceforth, it would throw all it had into the problem."

And so began America's war on fire. War is not too strong a word. After World War I, one magazine said fallen firefighters should be honored as "heroes of peace" who "died as truly in the service of the country as did those of Flanders' poppy-covered fields."

World War II brought a more subtle weapon: Smokey Bear. Smokey taught millions of Americans to hate fire, but not to understand it. "Smokey the Bear has been very effective," said David Adams, a professor of forestry at the University of Idaho. "Maybe too much so."

Anti-fire zeal grew and grew. After World War II came firefighting Jeeps, bombers, helicopters - forerunners of the huge firefighting apparatus that flashes across television screens every summer. Even satellites have joined in, tracking lightning strikes and flare-ups.

But as Pyne put it in The New Republic last August: "All-out warfare is not a useful way to think about our relationship with fire.

"Withholding fire has, in many landscapes, created a crisis in biotic health. It's the environmental equivalent of the S&L scandal. One manifestation has been a catastrophic buildup of combustible biomass, stockpiles of fuels unmatched in history," Pyne said. The problems are regionwide. But one landscape seems to suffer most - majestic ponderosa pine forests, which spread at the 3,000-to-7,500 elevation from Arizona to Washington, Montana to California.

These high, wide and lonesome forests, heavily logged and protected from fire for more than a century, originally evolved with fire. They need fire to survive, create sunny openings, thin out the understory, nourish the soil. Taking fire from the forest, scientists say, is like taking rain from the sky.

In northern Arizona, one recent study found that before settlement, the forest was dotted by 25 to 60 large ponderosa pines per acre. Today, after a century of fire suppression, the same region is crowded with 275 to 850 trees per acre, many of them spindly and diseased.

In Idaho, another study found that one area which supported 28 trees per acre a century ago now has 533. And 60 percent are dead. "These forests are dying faster than they are growing," said Jay O'Laughlin, director of the Forest, Wildlife and Range Policy Group at the University of Idaho.

The problem is not just too many trees. It's the wrong kind of trees. With fire no longer cleaning out the understory, pines are being overwhelmed by shadowy thickets of fir trees. Fir is not fire resistant. It is fire-prone. Fir is feeding the super-novas today.

Not since the last Ice Age have such powerful changes come to these forests, specialists say.

"We are teetering on the brink of collapse in ponderosa pine ecosystems. I don't think that's too strong a statement," said Mutch, the Montana fire scientist.

"Perhaps the most devastating effect has been the eruption of increasingly large and devastating "crown fires," which were not part of the evolutionary experience of these systems," said Wallace Covington, a professor of forest ecology at Northern Arizona University.

"On reflection, it would be very difficult to design a more devastating assault on the biodiversity of ponderosa pine ecosystems ... than what our predecessors inadvertently did."

Diagnosing the problem is one thing. Fixing it will be quite another. Credibility of federal agencies is low. The landscape is also a minefield of potential litigation.

Some even question whether there is a crisis at all - or just another campaign to cut more trees. Forest health, or forest hype?

"In most areas, the fire threat/forest health crisis is exaggerated," said Sami Yassa, a staff scientist with the Natural Resource Defense Council. "It is a pretext for business as usual: Get the cut out. Proposed cutting will only exacerbate the problem."

It's not just conservationists who are skeptical. Robert Hrubes, a professional forester in California, has questions, too - many aimed at his own profession and its penchant for Paul Bunyan logging.

"To the extent the forest health crisis is more than mere political expediency, it calls into account those who have been managing the land for the past 100 years - professional foresters," he said.

"More often than not, timber harvesting prescriptions have been 'high grades,' " Hrubes said. "Take the biggest trees ... and leave the rest. And do a sloppy job in the process. Which means you end up with overstocked stands of small diameter trees ... You end up with a fuel problem."

The Forest Service - which has turned fire-fighting and big timber logging into traditions - is taking most of the heat. Mutch, who spent his career with the agency before retiring from the Intermountain Fire Sciences Laboratory in Missoula last year, doesn't apologize.

But he does explain.

"Looking back, you wonder, "My God, why did it take five decades for folks to wise up?" There are some significant reasons," he said. "I don't offer them as excuses. But fires like the 1910 Idaho fire, the Tillamook fire and other large, devastating fires really created a culture within the agency ...
"We took a single-minded approach that all fires are bad and we're going to exclude fire from the landscape - and manage forests through timber harvest practices. And it's taken us a while to learn the error of that approach." Today, it's time to stop pointing fingers and start solving problems, Mutch said.

"Consensus is difficult but we must find a way to get there," he said. "We have the science to base it on. You look around the West and you have a hard time finding a healthy ponderosa pine forest.

"In the absence of consensus," Mutch said, "we're going to see a severe, continuing decline in human life, property and natural resources we all enjoy."

Tom Knudson lives in Truckee, California, where he writes for the Sacramento Bee.

The following sidebar articles accompany this feature story:

- Excerpts from Hellroaring: The Life and Times of a Fire Bum

- After the fire comes the real devastation

- Excerpts from Flame and Fortune; Quote from Interior Secretary Bruce Babbitt

- 'Indifference' caused deaths

- Multiple firefighter fatalities in the United States in wildland fires, 1900-present

- Excerpts from South Canyon Fire Accident Investigation Team report

- Bill would fight fire with chain saws

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