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Controlled Burn in Angeles Forest

October 01, 1986

Veysey is concerned about a "planned burn" of the Angeles National Forest, specifically the potential ecological damage and human health effects. His attitude was that the parties involved had lost their "perspective and sense of purpose." As is usual in such cases, I'm afraid neither he nor The Times got the whole story.

First, I would like to point out that this is a prescribed burn. The term "prescribed" is the key here. Such fires are set under extremely strict guidelines to ensure the safety of the people involved, to reduce the negative impact to the environment and to reduce the effects of the quantities of smoke produced on the urban environment. They are prepared under a "prescription" that clearly outlines the desired effects (usually the reduction of wildfire danger) and the specific conditions under which the fire will actually be lit.

This burn is to be conducted on the San Dimas Experimental Forest, an area specifically set up to do research. The area in question is about 1,200 acres of chaparral--not the forested areas that so concerned our letter writer. This burn is not even particularly large, as several prescribed fires and wildfires have occurred in the Los Angeles area recently that were larger.

The research to be conducted is not simply a case of creating a large smoke plume and seeing where it goes, but rather the first attempt to determine exactly what smoke is made of. Tests will be run to analyze the chemical composition of the smoke produced, to study the release of nitrogen compounds due to the fire, to study the effects of fire on air quality, and lastly to gain some insight on the "nuclear winter" hypothesis.

This last item was of major concern to Veysey, who felt that the insight gained on this topic would not be worth the "toll of suffering" in the local communities due to the smoke produced. In fact, the quantities of smoke that will be produced is virtually insignificant compared to the vast amounts of hydrocarbons, heavy metals, dioxins, nitrogen sulfide and the like that the rest of the basin dumps into the air every day. Given the local air patterns, most of the smoke will probably stay in the mountain areas as it drifts east anyway, dispersing over Nevada.

As for the issue of testing the "nuclear winter" hypothesis, the tests that will be performed during this fire will be doing nothing more than giving scientists hard data on the composition of smoke that can be entered into computer models. The tests will not prove or disprove any theories about "nuclear winter," which I in fact believe in. The connection between this fire and the "nuclear winter tests" was not even made until recently, and this part of the studies was added to the original research purposes for the fire.

Finally, I object to his use of the terms "cremation" and "arson," and his intimations that the people responsible for the management of the national forest in question are somehow remiss in their stewardship in planning this burn. The negative impact to the environment, which will largely be restricted to old and dead brush, will be negligible compared to the damage that would be done if the same area was to burn as a wildfire.

The prescribed burn programs undertaken by state and federal management agencies are not only making the chaparral environment less susceptible to severe wildfire damage (which often does adversely affect the environment), but are also improving the health of brush stands that need to be burned periodically to remain thrifty.

In closing, I hope that in the future Veysey will read all of an article before commenting. I read The Times article myself. As shocked as I was with the initial report of fire being used as a test of the "nuclear winter" hypothesis, upon further reading of the story I was able to pick out enough salient points to get to the truth of the matter. I applaud The Times for covering the story, but wish the aspects behind the "nuclear winter" issue had gotten better coverage.

ALEX A. PANCHECO

Beverly Hills

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