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What Happens When a Good Fire Turns Bad

Environment: Don't overreact. Unless more prescribed burns are allowed, there will be more unprescribed catastrophes.

May 19, 2000|MICHAEL PARFIT | Michael Parfit is a regular contributor to National Geographic. He has recently written on natural hazards and on the ecology of fire

The federal decision to suspend the setting of intentional fires in the wake of the Los Alamos disaster is politically expedient, but it could be as harmful to the forests as was the fire itself.

There's been an eruption of outrage over the Los Alamos fire, which was started when a prescribed burn set by National Park Service employees got away. Many voices have been raised in anger at the people who started the fire. Hearings will be called, at which members of Congress will decry the stupidity of starting fires on purpose and call for further study on more such "prescriptive" burning.

This is all political posturing, however. The issue of prescribed burning was thoroughly hashed over after the huge Yellowstone fires of a few years ago. The real message of Los Alamos is that there are not enough intentional fires in the West.

Americans have been fighting fire with the zeal of warriors for about a century. As bestsellers like Norman Maclean's "Young Men and Fire" show, the challenge of facing down a wildfire is as compelling, if not as dangerous, as going into battle. The U.S. Forest Service's smoke jumpers are as elite among young men as the Marines.

When a fire explodes, the government throws everything but accountants at it.

"Because we don't have a budget," a fire officer told me when I was writing a story about fire ecology for the National Geographic magazine, "we can afford to spend $1 million to save a $50,000 cabin."

But the pursuit of that noble cause, helped along by a national publicity campaign against fire led by the 1942 film "Bambi," has left a dangerous legacy.

The problem is that our forests have not burned when they should have. Much of America's landscape is dependent on fire. Before Europeans came with their fear of it, fire often ran through forest and grassland, sometimes set by lightning and sometimes set by Native Americans. The result was forests that needed fire to keep from being clogged with undergrowth, or grasslands that needed fire for renewal. The West's grand ponderosa pine forests, for instance, expect fire anywhere from every five to 25 years. When fire comes regularly to those forests, it usually creeps along under the big trees, cleans out debris and leaves an open, resilient landscape.

The 20th century's campaign against fire has changed that. Some of the forests have been denied the cleansing sweep of fire for more than half a century. Now, particularly in the forests of the West, we have a heavier-than-natural build-up of fuel. The bitter irony is that when fires do get out of hand in this overload of underbrush, they burn hotter and bigger than they usually did before we tried to control them--like this latest one did at Los Alamos.

There are two main ways to fix this. One is to log overgrown forests and start again from scratch. The problem with this shoot-the-patient-to-save-him approach is that it simply isn't politically or physically possible in many places. The other solution is to get forests back on a regular regime of fire. That's what "prescribed" fire is all about: The flames are lit as part of a prescription for the forest's survival.

When I was working on my story for the National Geographic, I went to several places where this was happening and saw both the wonderful way fire makes forests work and the difficulties people have making the system work to accept fire. Because of political problems ("Why did you get smoke all over Yosemite on the Fourth of July?") and understandable worries about liability, forest managers cannot get enough personnel, money or permits to put much of a dent in the overgrown forest. There is definitely a budget for prescribed burning, and it's small. Besides, there's glory in smoke jumping, and none in throwing a match into the brush.

Prescribed fires are vital to our forests. The federal action to suspend such fires in the middle of what is normally the safest burning season in the West is a little like closing down the entire airline industry for a month's review every time there's a plane wreck. Like pilots, the people who set the prescribed fire that stormed through Los Alamos will be judged in the next months, again and again. Yet whether they're found to have committed an error or not, the idea of what they were doing is vital to the health of our forests. Unless there are more prescribed fires, there will be more unprescribed disasters.

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