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Fighting fire with safer forests

With a fire season expected to be even worse than the devastating summer of 2000, creating “fire-safe” forests is a key priority. But if there is agreement that thinning the forests is crucial, there is little accord on how it should be managed.
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Arizona Gov. Jane Hull was incensed. She had come to comfort the residents of Show Low as they fled an encroaching wildfire that would soon consume an area greater than the city of Los Angeles. But she also had an admonition: “Mother Nature is saying to Arizona, to the West, that we have to clean up these forests. I hope the message gets across that we need to clean these forests.”

Hull and her like-minded counterparts in the new West have blamed this year’s fire crisis on some frequently invoked culprits: East Coast bureaucrats, environmentalists and policies that bar any trimming of public forests. Yet national fire policy isn’t quite so stringent, and blame is hardly so easy to place.

There is a widespread commitment on federal and local levels to fuels reduction: getting rid of material in fire-prone areas that’s likely to burn and likely to help a fire spread. Some $796 million has been appropriated in the past two years to make forests safer.

That mandate, as set out in a new National Fire Plan, is a major shift from the past. After the disastrous 2000 fire season, which cost the government $1.6 billion and burned over 8.4 million acres — more than double the average — widespread consensus grew that the old strategy of attacking and extinguishing every wildfire simply wasn’t working. Indeed, as a September 2000 report to President Clinton that set out fire plan guidelines argued, “While the policy of aggressive fire suppression appeared to be successful, it set the stage for the intense fires that we see today.”

So long, Smokey Bear.Reducing the threatAs land managers face a fire season expected to be even worse than the devastating summer of 2000, officials now consider the creation of “fire-safe” forests a key priority. But if there is agreement that thinning is crucial, there is little accord on how it should be managed.

“Thinning could mean 50 different things depending on who’s doing it,” said Sean Cosgrove, national forest policy specialist for the Sierra Club.

Wildland fires are most likely to churn out of control when forests are too dense and too much ground cover — bushes, branches, leaves and needles — grows thick on the forest floor. Several methods can be used to get rid of these natural fuels. The three most prominent are mechanical treatment (using tractors and other large machinery to sweep through the forest), manual treatment (sending in workers to cut and prune) and prescribed fires (deliberately setting controlled fires to thin out potential hazards).

The value of prescribed fires was questioned in 2000 after a blaze set by National Park Service workers at New Mexico’s Bandelier National Monument flamed out of control, eventually burning 47,000 acres around Los Alamos and destroying 235 homes. But with a newfound focus on fire management instead of outright prevention, and with this year looking to be even worse than the disastrous 2000 season, planned fires have regained their appeal.

Other treatments have their own drawbacks, most notably when debris left after trimming remains on the forest floor. The mix of deadwood, small trees, branches, twigs and other plant matter can dry out and become just as dangerous as if the trimming hadn’t occurred.

Selling the excess
For Hull and many others, there is an even simpler way to thin out the forests: Let logging companies in to take out the excess. Many forest officials, including Forest Service chief Dale Bosworth, have described this as a win-win situation: Loggers get timber, and the Forest Service accomplishes thinning.

But some environmental groups see the potential for significant harm in such plans. While thinning is often most effective on small trees and underbrush, timber firms are looking for larger old-growth trees. When those trees are taken out, one argument goes, it not only increases the amount of sunlight hitting the forest floor — further drying it out — but the process of logging often leaves behind the very sort of debris that thinning was meant to target.

That is not, however, the only logging method used for thinning. Bureau of Indian Affairs thinning programs, for example, often target a mix of old-growth and newer trees, as well as underbrush. The effort comes in part from a desire by often cash-strapped tribal governments to capitalize on the timber being removed.

“Where we can, we obviously like to choose to leave the big trees. But we need to do what we need to do,” said Lyle Carlile, assistant director of the BIA’s hazardous fuels reduction program. “Our landowners, the tribal governments that we manage for, if we just cut and slashed or chipped or hauled … and didn’t get a return on that … they would not be happy.”

And given consistent pressures to limit their logging activities, the Forest Service is considering ways to capitalize on thinning forest materials besides old-growth trees. Bosworth told Congress last May that part of the service’s fire plan goals is to devise technologies that “restore the health of the land by increasing the value and use of traditionally non- or low-valued forest products.”

That includes the sale of smaller-diameter trees to local craftspeople and small businesses, or chipping wood for sale. Even so, officials acknowledge the market, if growing, is limited. Still, tons of debris usually remains on the forest floor. Some can be hauled off, and some can be burned off, but there are no easy solutions.

“Obviously, we’re not going to burn all this material,” said Janet Anderson-Tyler, the Forest Service’s assistant director for fire, ecology and training. “In many of these sites, the fuel loading is much too heavy to burn.”

Communities at risk
But if targeting the dense public forests helps reduce the rapid spread of fires, perhaps the greatest threat to people remains the rapidly growing wildland-urban interface, those patchwork areas of homes and businesses where developed land abuts wild forest and grasslands. The need to make these areas safer is one issue on which there is broad accord.

Protecting interface areas requires a host of relatively obvious but crucial measures to fireguard homes: replacing highly flammable shake shingles — usually made from cedar — with metal or stucco roof coverings, keeping stacks of firewood and gas tanks away from buildings, and clearing trees and brush far away enough from homes that it becomes harder for flames to leap across the open space.

Moreover, public officials and environmental advocates alike hope to encourage communities to pass zoning regulations that would build basic fire safety principles into the housing codes.

“I think communities will need to work out what they’re willing to live with. It can’t come from a federal level,” said Anderson-Tyler.

The effort also includes national education campaigns such as Firewise, which federal officials plan to expand with a sort of community certification similar to the Tree City USA program run by the National Arbor Day Foundation. Certified communities would adhere to a set of fire safety guidelines and, potentially, might qualify for priority treatment or financial assistance during wildfire season.

Beyond that, the federal government maintains a list of those interface areas considered most vulnerable to wildfires. The Interior and Agriculture departments identified more than 11,300 at-risk communities, with 545 listed as “highest-risk.”

Even so, problems remain in coordinating efforts for those areas. A General Accounting Office report in January criticized federal efforts for lacking focus and noted that problems with the rankings left half the highest-risk communities in the Southeast, where wildfires rarely cause as much property damage as in the interior West.

For those whose property is at risk this year, the new efforts may seem to have little immediate value. But officials caution that those who opt to live in interface areas must be willing to cooperate in making their property safer from encroaching fires. And they hope to offer incentives — such as insurance discounts — for those homeowners willing to take fire-safety precautions. With nearly $400 million in federal money allotted for fuels reduction this year alone, costs are significant enough to spread around.

“People should be, in my opinion, somewhat responsible and willing to go part way in addressing this issue,” said Carlile. “That’s what I tell people when I’m visiting with them: You can’t look at this as somebody else’s problem.”