Managing Wild Fires and Controlled Fires

John Stuart discusses the differences between managing wild fires and controlled fires and problems that may arise in each situation.
By John Stuart
June/July 2003
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The destruction level of wild fires.
PHOTO: AP PHOTO/JOE CAVARETTA
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Learn about the differences between managing wild fires and controlled fires.

In my early years working for a volunteer fire department, the mission could not have been more clear: Control the chaos, save the house, put the fire out!

During the same years, I worked on controlled burns on commercial forests, where we operated under an entirely different understanding. Here, fire was fulfilling its beneficial, primeval mission. Low flames crackled across the hillsides, reducing to ash the incendiary branches and needles that could have fueled large destructive fires some time in the future. After the burns, the enriched soil provided a fertile bed for new tree seedlings. Valuable nutrients in the ash were absorbed quickly by the emerging vegetation.

Decades of research (and a certain amount of common sense) show that fire is not only beneficial in many natural settings, but that it is necessary to sustain the life cycles of many living things.There are differences between managing wild fires and controlled fires.

Fire is inevitable in many forest and grassland habitats. It is an eloquent promoter of diversity. Walk through a burned area in the years following a fire and watch the amazing parade of emerging life. Mushrooms sprout; fruit-bearing shrubs — roses, vacciniums (blueberries, huckleberries) and the Rubus genus (raspberries, blackberries) — can cover hundreds of acres within five years after a fire. The animals follow. Brushy plants and grasses that sprout after a fire are haute cuisine for the big herbivores: moose, elk and deer.

Last summer, the Biscuit Fire burned a national forest in Oregon. Although the perimeter encompassed 500,000 acres, about half of these acres burned lightly or not at all. Much of the media covered the event as a tragedy for the natural environment. In fact it was just the kind of fire that promotes healthy plant and animal life.

Greg Clevenger, a local staff officer for the Rogue River and Siskiyou National Forests, points out that fire "goes in and cleans out a lot of fuel buildup. What people tend to forget is, it will grow back. I'm not saying all fires are good all the time. But we tend as a society to sensationalize and over-dramatize the effect.

"Fire is a natural process. It plays a role like the wind and the rain."

Fire as Foe?

After a series of very destructive fires in the Great Lakes region in the late 1800s and several large fires in the early 1900s, the U.S. Forest Service established a policy to stop all fires in national forests. Fires on private land already were being doused, but this was the first time large-scale fire prevention was attempted on sprawling public lands. Early 20th-century foresters, focusing on the monetary value of trees, viewed all fires as detrimental. Sawmill owners and logging companies did not want their commodities going up in smoke. And national forest decision-makers, who were being trained in the same tradition as private foresters, worked under the same assumptions. Our appreciation for the ecological benefits of fire would be decades in coming.

Before forest managers got involved, frequent, low-intensity fires burned off the brush and small trees (the most flammable stuff) in many ecological environments. The bigger trees survived, and benefited from the regular deposits of nutrient-rich ash. Large trees, widely spaced on the ground, with limbs high in the air, are fairly fire-resistant.

Logging of these big trees has resulted in crowded stands of young trees, much more vulnerable to fire.

As the science of ecology revealed the benefits of fire in many forests, forest management practices changed. In the 1990s, logging levels were decreased, wide protective buffers were established along streams and a general feeling emerged that national forest policy was beginning to value preservation over extraction. Unfortunately, that feeling didn't last.

Again today, we face powerful forces that view our national forests as commodities. In late August 2002, President Bush made a strategically timed appearance near the Biscuit Fire in Oregon to promote the National Fire Plan (NFP) and a new program, the Healthy Forests Initiative (HFI). Both the NFP and HFI attempt to increase logging in national forests, using fire as a scare story to promote new plans that will have little to do with fire but that will increase logging dramatically.

Despite the stir raised by the media about the "catastrophe" or "disaster" of wildfires, the 6 to 8 million acres per year burned in several recent years are not extraordinary; between 1919 and 1949, an average of 29 million acres per year burned on all lands, public and private.

The Northwest Forest Plan was designed specifically to protect rare species and their old-growth habitat in the Cascade forests of Washington, Oregon and northern California. The reporting requirements of the Northwest Forest Plan that the HFI criticizes as holding up timber sales were put in place specifically to ensure that things like wildlife habitat, recreation and water quality are considered when logging plans are drafted. The Endangered Species Act, the National Environmental Policy Act and others that govern the preparation of timber sales were enacted by citizens who value conservation of our national forests. The comment and appeal regulations that HFI criticizes have given the American people some real control over what happens on public lands.

The national forests, in fact, are the largest reservoirs of wildlife habitat in this country. Sometimes people need to visit the woods, too, to experience a little of the wilderness — and wildness — themselves.

Increasing development of rural lands surrounding the national forests is steadily reducing their complexity and wildness. Fire is just one of many natural elements, sometimes peaceful, sometimes threatening, that make forests work.

Those in favor of more logging are wordsmithing fire into the latest "catastrophic" force to justify more tree-cutting. Hopefully, the American people will think otherwise.

Related Article:
Firesafe Your House


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