Managing Wild Fires and Controlled Fires

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The destruction level of wild fires.
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Here's a virtually clear (cut) case of not being able to see the forest for the lack of trees. This photo is the startling result of the thinning program the U.S. Forest Service is proposing for more than 30 million acres of national forestlands in the West. This "thinning" was done in Coconino National Forest, outside of Flagstaff, Arizona.

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.

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