Good policy and good intentions won't stop big wildfires

  • Santa Fe National Forest Fuels Specialist Program Manager Bill Armstrong in an area affected by the Las Conchas Fire.

    Eric Swanson
  • A Kings River Hotshots' Division T firefighter takes a break during a night burn operation conducted during New Mexico's 2011 Las Conchas Fire.

    Kari Greer
  • A tree torching in Arizona's 2011 Wallow Fire.

    Kari Greer
  • Regrowth peeks through the ashes of the Las Conchas Fire in late September.

    Eric Swanson
  • A member of the Kings River Hotshots' Division T performs a night burn operation during the Las Conchas Fire

    Kari Greer
  • An abundance of regrowth in Rocky Mountain National Park shows how fire can benefit a forested area.

    Scott Sticha, National Park Service
  • By the time New Mexico's Las Conchas Fire was contained in early August, it had burned more than 156,000 acres, including this area near Dixon's Apple Orchard at the mouth of Cochiti Canyon.

    Kari Greer

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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.

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