« Return to this article

for people who care about the West

Good policy and good intentions won't stop big wildfires


Southwestern wildfires are known to be fast-moving and destructive, but this summer's conflagrations astonished even veteran observers. On May 29, two cousins abandoned a campfire in a ponderosa pine forest in eastern Arizona. The resulting Wallow Fire, encouraged by dry, windy weather, burned for the next five weeks. It became the largest wildfire in the state's recorded history -- consuming 32 homes as it raced across 538,000 acres. A month later, an aspen fell across a power line southwest of Los Alamos, N.M. Overnight, the Las Conchas Fire exploded to 40,000 acres.

Five days after Las Conchas ignited, I was rattling along a dusty dirt road near the fire's northern front in a U.S. Forest Service pickup crammed with maps and backpacks. Bill Armstrong, fuels specialist program manager for the Santa Fe National Forest, was at the wheel. As we climbed into the ponderosa pines, huge clouds of gray-white smoke billowed above the mountains. Armstrong described the blaze's incredible spread. "I'd never seen fire behave that way," the 25-year agency veteran said, widening his pale-blue eyes in disbelief and shaking his head. "It confounds everything I thought I knew. That fire was up and moving before you could even get out of the way. It burned about an acre per second." By the time Las Conchas was fully contained on Aug. 2, it had burned over 156,000 acres and destroyed 63 homes -- by far the biggest fire in New Mexico's history.

Fire is, of course, vital to just about every Western ecosystem. And historically it has come in many shapes and sizes, leaving behind mosaics of green and black. Some areas remain untouched, while in others, the flames keep low to the ground, burning lightly. Elsewhere, the fire may storm through the crowns of the trees, killing many of them. Certain types of forest, like spruce-fir and mixed conifer, naturally burn in such stand-replacing fires, while drier, lower-elevation forests, like the ponderosa that covers much of the Southwest, are adapted to frequent light or moderate fires.

But as any fire ecologist will tell you, the amount and type of fuels, and the conditions that influence fire size, have changed drastically over the past century. Logging removed large trees and left flammable thickets; livestock grazing reduced the grasses that once regularly carried fires, thinning new trees and undergrowth. Meanwhile, land managers snuffed out every wildfire they could. Add climate change, which is making most of the West hotter and drier, and epidemics of tree-killing pine beetles, and conditions are prime for large, severe wildfires.

Fire activity in the West has increased sharply since the 1980s; the past 10 years have seen at least 60 fires over 100,000 acres in size. Huge fires burned in pre-settlement times, too, but today's mega-fires tend to burn more acres at a high severity. The scorched soil left behind sheds rainfall and snowmelt, causing floods that wash away topsoil and carry ash into drinking water. Large, formerly forested areas are taken over by grasses, shrubs and weeds -- species that sprout readily after fires -- and tree regrowth takes a much longer time.

For more than a decade now, the Forest Service and other federal agencies have allowed managers to make decisions based on forest health rather than expedience. They've been given permission to aggressively thin overstocked forests, whether with chainsaws or prescribed fire -- even to let some wildfires burn when they're doing ecological good.

But what's permitted on paper and what happens on the ground are often two very different things. Armstrong and other fire managers are acutely aware of how a variety of forces -- some social, some political -- conspire against progressive fire policies, and they see no easy way forward. "I'm afraid that the future of the forests of the Southwest is going to be more fires like Las Conchas and Wallow," says Armstrong. "I'm not sure how much we will be able to do to prevent those."

Armstrong's own story echoes the evolution of federal fire policy. Now 59, he grew up in a rural town near Guadalajara, Mexico, where he hunted quail and deer in the Sierra Madre. Farmers regularly burned the valley bottoms to remove crop residue and weeds, and flames sometimes crawled up into the forest. "Fire wasn't a big deal there," he says, in a voice given a gravelly edge by a lifetime of breathing smoke. " 'The woods are on fire, so what?' " He learned early on that fire had benefits: It drove his prey out into the open, and wildlife returned to burned areas as soon as they greened up. Before long, he says, he was lighting his own fires out in the Mexican woods. "I burned more acres as a kid than I've ever been able to professionally (with prescribed burns). I didn't have to worry about paperwork, air quality regulations, T&E (threatened and endangered) species. Those forests up there thrived, the impacts were positive."

He remembered those experiences when he started working with the Forest Service. "When I first came to the Carson (National Forest) in '87, there was very little burning going on. But I could see the problem, all this fuel piling up." A few years later, he moved to the Santa Fe National Forest, which allowed more burning. He came across a thesis by Craig Allen, a U.S. Geological Survey scientist, describing forest changes in the Jemez Mountains caused by long-term fire suppression. "All these little pieces clicked," says Armstrong. "My memories of Mexico, stuff I learned from studies and conferences, things I'd seen in other forests. Fire scars started to pop out at me when I was out in the woods." By the early '90s, Armstrong and most other land managers had reached the same stark conclusion: "We have a goddamn mess on our hands."

In 1995, the Agriculture and Interior departments -- the ultimate landlords of the West's federal forests -- came out with the much-heralded Federal Fire Policy. "Catastrophic wildfire now threatens millions of wildland acres," it stated. "Serious and potentially permanent ecological deterioration is possible where fuel loads exceed historical conditions." Restoration of wildland fire became a national priority, second only to safety on the firelines.

Six years later, the Federal Fire Policy was updated. Fire hazards had only become worse, it noted: "Conditions on millions of acres of wildland increase the probability of large, intense fires beyond any scale yet witnessed." The National Fire Plan was developed to reduce fuels buildup. Then came the controversial 2002 Healthy Forests Initiative, which emphasized thinning and logging to reduce fire danger. The following year, the Bush administration required that every wildland fire had to be managed as either a "good" fire (allowed to burn for resource benefits) or a "bad" one (suppressed on all fronts).

Fire managers criticized that lack of flexibility, and in 2009, under Obama, a new policy offered more options for handling wildfires, including the ability to manage a fire for multiple objectives that can change as the fire's path changes. Now, a wildfire can burn unchecked in a remote rocky area, even as it is corralled on another front threatening a town. "(The agency) can save a huge amount of money with this more rational, science-based approach instead of a war model. It's a sea change," says Rich Fairbanks, a former Forest Service wildfire expert who now works on fire policy for The Wilderness Society.

Also in 2009, Congress and the Obama administration passed the Federal Land Assistance, Management and Enhancement (FLAME) Act, which reformed fire-management funding. It created a pair of reserve funds that help cover the costs of large or complex fires, reducing the need for the agencies to siphon money away from other vital programs and services, like maintenance and trail-building.

Other progressive policy changes are in the works. In February 2011, the Forest Service released a draft Forest Planning Rule that will be finalized later this year. For the first time ever, the plans for managing each national forest and grassland "must take wildland fire into account as a component of a healthy ecosystem." The new Cohesive Fire Management Strategy, requested by Congress, outlines an approach that considers all types of land (federal, state, tribal, private) and communities; the coordination is meant to strengthen wildfire management and reduce costs.

These policies reinforce a primary goal: restoring ecosystem health. That includes reducing fuel buildup so that fire can be returned safely to the forests and forests can recover more quickly after a burn. Applying mechanical treatments first, such as cutting down smaller trees, piling and burning slash, and using machinery to chop up trees and brush, can reduce the severity of later fires and make follow-up prescribed burns easier to control.

Annually, the Forest Service uses prescribed burns on nearly two-and-a-half times as much acreage as the Bureau of Land Management, Fish and Wildlife Service and National Park Service combined; it mechanically treats roughly three times as many acres as its fellow agencies. But it's still not enough. The agency treated 3 million acres in 2010 with thinning or prescribed burns, says Forest Service Chief Tom Tidwell, "but I'd feel a lot better if we were treating 4 or 5 million acres per year." Most experts think the agency is treating just one-quarter the number of acres each year that it needs to. And such treatment is never a one-shot remedy, because brush and trees regrow (see table, page 13).

To get the most bang for the buck, treatments should be planned strategically so that future fires "don't have a lot of room to roam before they whack into a treatment," says Mark Finney, with the agency's Forest Fire, Fuel and Smoke Science Program in Missoula, Mont. Finney suggests that for a significant effect on fire spread, 10 to 20 percent of the landscape should be in a treated condition at any given time. In most of the West, he says, only about 1 percent is in such condition.

That's because most forest treatments are "postage-stamp" efforts that barely make a dent in the West's 277 million fire-prone acres of public lands. "These challenges cannot be addressed by thinking and acting at small scales. That's been one of the vain hopes of forest management for a couple of decades now -- that small targeted treatments would somehow have a cumulative effect at landscape scales," says Don Falk, associate professor in the School of Natural Resources at the University of Arizona. "Landscape-scale approaches are critical -- and possible."

The Forest Service and other agencies are moving in that direction, says Chief Tidwell. Next year's budget includes $854 million for ecosystem restoration work, such as the Collaborative Forest Landscape Restoration Program, created in 2009, which is focusing resources on 10 initial projects to improve the health of large swaths of forest. One of these projects, the Four Forest Restoration Initiative in Arizona, aims to thin up to 50,000 acres annually over two decades to help bring back low-severity fire; the Southwest Jemez Mountains project in New Mexico will reduce fuels across 210,000 acres. These new efforts complement ongoing Forest Service efforts such as Arizona's White Mountain Stewardship project, a 10-year contract targeting 150,000 acres of small ponderosa pines near mountain communities. Such large-scale, long-term projects also make it easier to find commercial markets for the wood removed, key to controlling costs.

Still, it's impossible to thin or burn every overgrown acre; wildfire will continue to "treat" many more acres than humans ever can. "Forests will always be managed by fire," says Finney.

Bill Armstrong thought I should see firsthand how thinning and burning can help control later wildfires. We drove to the site of the South Fork burn, a June 2010 wildfire that the Forest Service allowed to burn until it reached chosen boundaries. It covered over 17,000 acres west of Española. "We could let that one go, since conditions were wetter and calmer," he said. "This year, no way. Too hot, too dry, too windy. We have to pounce on every fire."

Armstrong, tall and rangy, has shoulders permanently canted forward from decades of hauling heavy backpacks. The one he hoisted today was a big green pack embroidered with "Santa Fe Hotshots." We hiked west, into a breeze carrying a smoky tang from the Las Conchas Fire over a mile away. He explained that the South Fork Fire encompassed about 5,000 acres that had been thinned, prescribed-burned, or both during the past 20 years. As we passed through a stand of big, widely spaced ponderosas, he pointed out how the open ground between the trees and the lack of low-hanging limbs had slowed the blaze and kept it from climbing into the crowns. Now the Las Conchas Fire was heading this way, and Armstrong was eager to see how the forest would fare. When I called him a month later, after the fire was contained, he sounded pleased. As soon as the fire reached the previously burned areas, he said, "It just laid down. It stopped."

Armstrong, like most federal fire managers, carefully considers each wildfire's location, its proximity to homes, firefighter safety, and the local fuel and weather conditions before deciding how to respond. But 90 to 97 percent of fires are still extinguished quickly. (Human-caused fires must be suppressed, and cannot be managed for multiple objectives.) A host of factors limit the agency's ability to let more acres burn in wildfires, and to perform more prescribed burns and thinning.

But lawsuits by environmental groups are not one of them, although they're often blamed for upping fire danger by blocking logging and thinning operations. "I've gotten angry phone calls" about the Las Conchas Fire, says Bryan Bird of Santa Fe-based WildEarth Guardians. "People screaming at me, saying, 'This is all your fault.' But only 2 percent of fuels-reduction projects are litigated." Bird's figure is correct, according to a 2010 report from the Government Accountability Office. Nor do appeals stop many projects. The Forest Service made 1,415 fuels-reduction decisions between 2006 and 2008. Appeals caused perhaps 17 of these to be modified and about 15 to be cancelled outright, the GAO found; the rest proceeded as planned.

The biggest obstacle is, of course, funding. Fire experts agree that an ounce of prevention, in the form of forest treatments, is worth millions in cure, in the form of aggressive firefighting. Treating an acre with prescribed fire costs between $50 and $200, according to the Forest Service, while treating an acre mechanically costs from $500 to $2,000. Suppressing a fire costs at least $900 per acre. As with most government agencies, the Forest Service's funding continues to decrease during these hard times; next year's budget request is $5.1 billion, a decrease of $178 million from 2011. Funds for wildfire management will drop nearly 20 percent. "(Burning) is a very difficult task that takes good practical science and well-trained people," says Fairbanks. "We are not giving the agencies enough funding for that."

Between 50 and 95 percent of the cost of fighting large fires goes to protecting private homes near forests, according to Forest Service managers, and at least 45 million homes across the nation sit in fire-prone areas. "If you ask any fire manager what ties their hands," Falk says, "it's the structures built out there. If we don't get serious about land use, then all the policy in the world won't help, because you won't be able to implement it." Making homes less flammable helps a lot, but there's always political resistance to imposing zoning and building codes to reach that goal (though California is attempting a breakthrough -- see sidebar).

In many forest communities, there's a growing understanding of the need for fuel treatment, especially in the wake of big fires like Arizona's Wallow. "We had treated a lot of acres around Alpine and Greer (two forest towns). We lost around 30 homes" in the Wallow Fire, Tidwell says, "but if we had not done that work we would have lost hundreds more." With any fire, though, there are concerns about air quality and safety. State regulators are reluctant to let a prescribed burn proceed if it will put high levels of harmful particulates into the air, and residents don't like it when the smoke hangs thick over their homes and schools. "Restoring fire (to a landscape) is like restoring wolves," says Falk. "They're both scary wild things that ecologists believe are absolutely critical and everybody else wants to get rid of."

Although on average less than 1 percent of prescribed burns escape control, the backlash is tremendous if one gets away, as New Mexico's 2000 Cerro Grande Fire did -- burning 235 buildings in Los Alamos. "If I run a ranger district such that there's terrible fuels buildup and a lightning strike ignites a huge fire that takes out houses, nobody points fingers. But if I do some prescribed burning and get even a 10-acre escape, it's in the paper as a big mistake," says Fairbanks. "It's a distorted view of fuel treatment and fire management. It's a bias towards inaction" -- doing no prescribed burns.

Managers have more success steering wildfires in the backcountry, where flames can spread without endangering homes. There, they can take advantage of natural firebreaks like rocky cliffs while relying on behavior modeling to determine where a fire might go. According to the Forest Service, last year wildfires were allowed to consume built-up fuels on about 152,000 acres nationwide; this year, as of August, the figure was about 29,000 acres. But the policy allowing such "multiple objective" fires isn't handled uniformly. "It varies by region and the idiosyncrasies of different incident management teams," says Timothy Ingalsbee, director of the Oregon-based nonprofit Firefighters United for Safety, Ethics and Ecology. Putting out a fire is always the easiest call to make. "It's a blank check, it's the popular thing to do," says Greg Aplet, a fire scientist with The Wilderness Society. "In the heat of a wildfire, not many will argue that you ought to do nothing."

Even if the public wholeheartedly embraced the need for more burning and even if the agencies had an unlimited budget for forest restoration work, big, severe wildfires would still happen.  Large portions of the West are in a long-term cycle of drought. The region's climate has warmed between 2 and 5 degrees, on average, during the past century, according to researchers; those factors have increased the number and intensity of wildfires. A NASA model predicts that fire activity in the West might be 30 to 60 percent higher by the end of this century. As the fire season gets ever longer, there are fewer opportunities when conditions are right for controlled or prescribed burns, says Aplet. "The imperative to thin forests and address fuels is greater than ever. But whether it will be enough to hold off wholesale change in forests remains to be seen."

After the summer's dramatic coverage of the Southwest's huge fires, after the photos of ashen moonscapes left behind, after weeks of skies filled with haze from fires hundreds of miles away, it might be easy to feel depressed about the fact that, in all likelihood, wildfires are just going to keep getting bigger and hotter. Although those large fires will still provide environmental benefits, over time some Western forests may become much different than what we're used to -- more big patches of grass and shrubs that replace trees, more eroded slopes, more silted-up streams, more flooding. "These big fires reset the clock," says Armstrong, "but the results are not always what we as a species would like to see. We lose things humans hold dear, recreational opportunities and cherished places. All we can do is encourage resilience." He's talking about making forests more adaptable, but his words apply to all of us Westerners who choose to live near the woods.

As Falk points out, "The evolution of federal fire policy in the direction of allowing fires to burn on a landscape scale happened as result of very persistent effort, research and experimentation on the part of thousands of fire professionals in the West. We can't afford to give up. No matter how many setbacks you have, keep trying and experimenting, putting examples out there, doing research." The evolution and experimentation will continue, in the Forest Service and in other federal agencies. And while many progressive fire managers are already on the job, a new generation, thoroughly trained in fire ecology and computer modeling, will continue the push toward managing fire rather than just fighting it. "We're finally nurturing the  kind of managers needed to successfully implement this policy," says Ingalsbee.

Back in northern New Mexico, on Aug. 17, lightning sparked a wildfire five miles east of Ponderosa. It was right in the middle of a 12,000-acre area that the Santa Fe National Forest is planning to burn with a prescribed fire next year. But now, Mother Nature had jumpstarted the effort. Armstrong was delighted. "(The Guacamalla) fire is doing a wonderful job," he said. "The winds, the slopes, everything is in our favor. We have no control problems." By late September, the fire had crept across 1,600 acres of dense ponderosa thickets and conifers, in cooler, moist conditions. With any luck, said Armstrong, the fire would continue "skunking along," creating a light to moderate burn across hundreds more acres by the time the autumn rains put it out for good. "The Guacamalla's smoke is the smoke of hope," he said. "With current policies, we can make some headway. The only way to prevent big fires is with lots of small fires, like this one. The choice is not 'fire or no fire,' it's what kind of fire you want to see."

Jodi Peterson is HCN’s managing editor. She writes from Paonia, Colorado.