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Logging Won't Block Fires

November 24, 2002

Forest infernos led TV newscasts and made front-page photos all during the long, dry summer and fall of 2002. With more than 6 million acres burned, this was one of the biggest fire years ever. President Bush even tried to harness the emotion triggered by the wildfires to bypass environmental laws and allow more logging of forests with high fire potential.

Some of the worst fires were in the drought-plagued Rockies. California too had its high-profile fires, such as the 150,000-acre Sequoia National Forest burn.

Curiously, however, Yosemite National Park just to the north was an oasis of green calm this year. Last week, in declaring the fire season over, park officials called 2002 "one of the most successful fire years" in a 112-year history. Much of Yosemite, which is the size of Rhode Island, is forested.

Yosemite was extremely dry, as was the rest of the state, but the largest nonintentional fire, touched off by lightning, covered just 2,000 acres in the White Wolf area north of Yosemite Valley. Lightning accounted for 13 other fires. The three largest accidental human-caused blazes burned only 125 acres.

Park officials said the season was a good one partly because of quick control and suppression of fires as they were detected, but they said luck and planning were factors too. The largest fire was one deliberately set by park officials. The 3,500-acre fire near Crane Flat was set to clear the forest of highly flammable debris and underbrush near a ranger station and Yosemite Institute facilities.

Park officials even conducted visitor tours of the low-intensity White Wolf fire while it was underway to demonstrate how such blazes rid the forest of excess fuels and benefit the ecosystem.

In that sense, even some of the more dramatic of the year's fires were less devastating than they looked. The Times' Bettina Boxall reported that only about 8% of the Sequoia fire area was severely damaged -- to the point where trees were consumed or clearly killed. The rest benefited from the cleansing effect of the blaze.

Forests abutting human settlement do need to be thinned and cleared to reduce the fire risk. But the major factor in the severity of the 2002 fire season was simply the dryness of the forests. The Bush plan to increase logging stalled because of objections from Senate Democrats and environmental groups that it was more profit-making logging program than fire prevention measure.

This new report should help put fire danger in perspective and persuade the White House that a logging spree isn't the answer to forest fires.

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