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Forest Fire as a Friend : Controlled burns can aid ecosystems and avert conflagrations

September 23, 1996

Burning nearly 6 million acres, mostly in the West, the brush and forest fires of 1996 have been the most extensive in three decades. The year's conflagrations are the third most expensive ever, costing taxpayers more than $640 million to fight them.

Increasingly in recent years, flames have taken a heavy toll on California. While the state lost 3,500 structures to wildfires between 1920 and 1989, for example, 4,500 structures were destroyed in 1990-93 alone. One answer may lie in controlled burning and reducing combustible material, including houses, in the natural paths of wildfires.

A study published in Science magazine also suggests another benefit of controlled burns. In time, they bring about a varied ecosystem in which combustible fuels are scattered, less dense and less likely to lead to huge wildfires. Contradicting the view that all fires are destructive and potentally disastrous, the study contends that fires "build as they burn."

While the article's principal aim is to encourage ecological diversity, it also shows that controlled burning is economically desirable: by destroying brush, fallen trees and other fuel, it prevents catastrophic fires that otherwise are inevitable and extremely hard to stop. An important factor in the problem is the federal government's seven-decade-long policy of extinguishing all fires as soon as possible.

The Science article appeared just after congressional leaders, mostly from Western states hit hard by this year's fires, sent a critical letter to Secretary of Agriculture Dan Glickman. The legislators urged the Clinton administration to deliver on the president's 1995 promise to act to control wildfires by, for example, accepting "timber health and salvage" operations in which loggers could remove combustible material from forests and rural areas.

The administration deserves some of the legislators' criticism. It has largely turned a deaf ear to outspoken advocates of controlled burning, including U.S. Forest Service Chief Jack Ward Thomas. But to be fair, the administration has been stymied in its efforts to control wildfires by environmentalists concerned over smoke pollution and by real estate interests and zoning boards opposing requirements that houses be built of costly fire-resistant materials.

The fundamental problem, as veteran firefighter and historian Stephen J. Pyne puts it, is that "there is no advocacy group for fire. Fire is what is left over once everyone has satisfied their needs." The Clinton administration should act as the advocate, making sure that controlled burning becomes part of the nation's fire fighting arsenal, whatever the special interests think.

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