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POLICY : U.S. to Fight Wildfires With Fire as Part of New Strategy


WASHINGTON — After a deadly summer of wildfires, and with California's unpredictable fire season ahead, federal officials are planning a new strategy for battling blazes that includes one of the oldest tricks in the book: fighting fire with fire.

Officials last week told legislators that land managers must make greater use of controlled burns--fires set deliberately to get rid of underbrush and dying vegetation--if they are to restore the environmental health of forests and curtail the kinds of wildfires that consumed 2.2 million acres of the West this summer.

To do so, they must overcome such obstacles as poor funding, environmental statutes and public skepticism.

"The Smokey Bear message for 50 years has been very effective--fire is bad," said Joseph Douglas, director of the Interior Department's office of hazard and fire programs coordination.

"We now have to add another dimension to it--that fire can be good if it's used in the right place at the right time," Douglas said.

In California, a state interagency fire strategy team is due to release a report this month recommending that tens of thousands of acres of forests and other wild lands should be treated annually with preventive burning.

Officials said the problem has been building up, literally, on forest floors for almost a century.

Before settlers pushed into the West, fires were a regular feature. They helped return nutrients to the soil, and their frequency ensured that forest fires did not have enough fuel to burn very hot. Although lightning caused many fires, Native Americans also set fires, helping create prime habitats for the kinds of plants and animals that they relied on for food and warmth.

A century of settlement, however, has made fire less frequent and left the West's forests more combustible, officials said. The buildup of flammable material is far more likely to fuel an out-of-control inferno so hot it can leave the soil sterile.

That factor has contributed to the loss of lives and the cost of fighting fires: 27 federal firefighters have died fighting 77,000 fires in the West this year. The cost of fighting fires on national forest lands this year is likely to top $700 million.

Returning forest conditions to those seen at the start of the century could take many years, said James Lyons, assistant secretary of agriculture.

First, diseased and dying timber would have to be sold and harvested at a more aggressive rate. Only then could controlled burning take place. Lyons said such treatment, including preventive burns, in Angeles National Forest could significantly affect controlling fire in Southern California.

Ironically, the legions of people who have been drawn to the West's natural beauty may be the principal obstacle to using controlled burns to fight fires that could destroy large swaths of the region, officials said.

A large fear for residents is that preventive fires will burn out of control and claim their homes and investments. Although federal fire officials concede that is a risk, they warn that to rule out preventive fires could open homeowners to greater risks later.

In addition, housing developments at the edges of the West's cities have pushed into overgrown forest areas.

Bob Armstrong, assistant interior secretary, and others have said the federal government needs to encourage state and local officials to adopt building codes that include bans on wood shake and shingle roofs and stronger brush-clearing requirements--as the Los Angeles County Board of Supervisors have done.

Federal fire officials also face a shortage of funds to clear dead and dying trees from public lands and conduct preventive blazes. Prompted by this summer's fires, Congress has nudged out a $156.5-million budget for "fuel depletion," up by $3 million for fiscal 1995. But the Congressional Research Service estimates it would cost $3.5 billion to clear and burn flammable debris from 10% of federally owned forests in the West.

Finally, fire officials must consider the Clean Air Act, which allows little latitude for open burning. The Clinton Administration has opened discussions with the Environmental Protection Agency to try to negotiate waivers for controlled burns.

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