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National Perspective

The West's Fire-Dependent Forests

September 07, 2000

A combination of drought and a century of fire suppression made this summer's fire season the worst in 50 years. Recent rains have brought relief, but about 74,000 different fires have burned 6.5 million acres, with the brunt of the damage occurring in Western forests. While many of the Wests forests appear healthy, many scientists agree they are, in fact, unnaturally overcrowded with too many trees. In the past, experts say, Western forests experienced frequent, low-intensity fires that cleared excess growth. But now, the overly dense forests are vulnerable to catastrophic fires, which under natural conditions occurred infrequently but now are very common. Many believe that the fire in Los Alamos, N.M., in May, which started when a prescribed burn went out of control, was a wake-up call to fire management officials to act now before the summer of 2000 repeats itself.

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Sources: National Interagency Fire Center; U.S. Forest Service; National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration; Tom Zimmerman, National Park Service; National Audubon Society's "Western Forests;" "The Nature of North America," by David Rockwell; April 1999 General Accounting Office report on Western national forests

Researched by JULIE SHEER/Los Angeles Times

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