Forest Magazine Article: Point of View
Terry Lynn Barton made great copy. As the Hayman Fire burned through the Pike National Forest toward Denvers outskirts earlier this summer, one U.S. Forest Service employee made national news for her outlandish story. Barton was responsible for patrolling the forest and keeping people from starting fires, but, according to her account to authorities, she became distraught after reading a letter from her estranged husband and burned it in a fire ring while she was on patrol. Embers from that awful letter, she said, started the Hayman Firethe biggest recorded in Colorado history. Residents evacuated from homes threatened by the fire expressed sympathy for her as they packed up their belongings and headed out.
Then the story turned, and whatever sympathy Bartons story evoked evaporated. Investigators said Barton started the fire intentionally. Evidence at the fire ring pointed toward more than the remnants of a single-page letter as the fires source, investigators said. The story turned from novelesque to News of the Weird. Heartbreak, irony, tragedy, it was a great distraction.
Then it happened again. As the national news told the story of Show Low, Arizona, making its desperate last stand against the Rodeo-Chediski Fire, the news broke that a Bureau of Indian Affairs firefighter was charged with starting it. He needed the work, investigators said. Then there was the lost hiker in Arizona who started a signal fire that burned out of control, and the woman arrested for leaving an abandonded campfire that got away and threatened the giant sequoias in California. And the series of fires, twenty or more in a roadside pattern in Colorado national forests. The work, it appeared, of a serial arsonist, investigators said. These were people who turned Smokey Bears message on its head, and as the national media mulled the psychology and financial motivations of arsonists, they missed what what some of these folks understood intuitively. Its a drought year, conducive to starting fires, whether by lightning or human hand. People just got the jump on nature.
Lost in each of these stories are the counterintuitive facts about fire, and much of this issue of Forest Magazine is devoted to whats not making headlines:
What happens in the forest, what burns and how hot, has little to do with whether peoples homes burn, according to Jack Cohen, a Forest Service fire scientist.
Intentionally set cool fires are a time-tested, cost-effective management technique, say Stephen Arno, a retired Forest Service fire scientist; Frank Kanawha Lake, who studies fire and culture at Oregon State University (see page 20); and Rich Fairbanks, a forester on the Willamette National Forest in Oregon.
Firefighting does more damage than fire as crews work feverishly ahead of the flames cutting and bulldozing trees to clear fuel along fire lines, says Timothy Ingalsbee, director of the Western Fire Ecology Center for the American Lands Alliance .
Most of the acreage that burns each year in wildland fires isnt in national forests and our spending priorities are skewed, says Peter Morrison, a mapping expert and executive director of the Pacific Biodiversity Institute (see page 16).
Finally, weather patterns, not people, may have the most to do with whether and how much of a forest burns, says Cathy Whitlock, a geographer at the University of Oregon who studied the fire return intervals over 17,000 years in Yellowstones lodgepole pines.
Fire research has the potential to reform conventional wisdom about fire, but its lagging behind faulty assumptions that drive the annual war on wildland fire.
Fire needs three things to burn: heat, fuel and oxygen. Theres not much we can do to change the amount of oxygen a fire gets, and weve tried to control one aspect of heat, ignition, for fifty years with Smokey Bears Only you can prevent forest fires message. However, lightning strikes start most fires and the best we can do about the weather is refine our ability to predict it. We have probably the greatest control over fuels in the forest, and fuel is the hot topic of fire managers, the federal land management agencies and Congress these days. But managing fuels offers a false promise and unintended consequences. Some forestsparticularly low-elevation ponderosa pine forestsare overstocked with small trees that contribute to more intense fires, a failure of a century of all-out fire suppression. Subtly, however, the Forest Service is promoting its former failures and offering another one-size-fits-all solution that, some argue, feeds its bureaucracy at the expense of addressing the real problems of wildland fire.
Colorado Representative Scott McInnis even used the overstocked-forests argument to light a fire under environmentalism this season, blaming environmental appeals for slowing work on thinning projects that would make forests more fire resistant. McInnis pointed to the thick forests of young trees burning in the Rodeo-Chediski Fire and claimed that environmentalism was to blame for the intense blazes flaring up across the West. McInniss message dovetailed with what Forest Service Chief Dale Bosworth had been saying for monthsa conflicting web of laws and regulations were being exploited by environmentalists and bogging down the agency, keeping it from its real work. For McInnis, its a simple equation, remove the fuellog the forestand fire wont be a problem. As for logging the forest to keep it from burning, much of the Rodeo-Chediski fire burned in a heavily logged and roaded area, thick with unburned slash and small trees planted with little regard for the likelihood of fire passing through, according to a geographical analysis of the fire conducted by Morrison.
This heavily logged and roaded area on tribal land is where the Rodeo-Chediski Fire started and burned intensely before moving into the neighboring national forest. The Forest Service doesnt have jurisdiction on tribal lands and its thinning projects nearby would have done nothing to check the early spread of the fire. Its a pattern Morrison has charted across the West. Last year, he analyzed where wildfires burned over the past decade and found that on average less than 18 percent of those fires were on national forests. Yet the Forest Service received the biggest appropriation from Congresss $3 billion fire budget in 2002. Morrison says that centering the discussion about fuel treatmentthinning small-diameter trees and using prescribed burningon national forests doesnt address the real threat that homes, communities and tribal lands face and that the money could be better spent addressing the fire protection needs of those communities and homeowners. In fact, much of the acreage that burns each yearscrubland and pi–on-juniper landscapeswould benefit little from thinning projects, Morrison says, and prescribed burning may be the most cost-effective, natural choice for most fire management.
Prescribed burning and thinning have a place in returning forests to natural fire regimes and preserving the biodiversity dependent on regular fires. Fairbanks breaks it down simply. If theres a threat to homes, thin, but take only the vegetation thats a threat to the forest in a fire and resist the temptation to let contractors take a few of the big, fire-resistant trees. If the forest is away from populated areas, prescribed fire is the appropriate choice. Fairbanks argues that we shouldnt ignore management techniques that American Indians developed over thousands of years but were rejected by federal agencies a century ago. Fairbanks helped plan a fire conference in June that gathered fire researchers together with American Indians in western Oregon. The conference offered a longer view on fire and a reminder that tribes used fire in many ways to manage their environments and that the exclusion of fire has brought dramatic changes to the forest. Fairbanks adapted this outlook about fire to a fire plan for the Willamette National Forest in Oregon but has had little success implementing it.
The Hayman Fire taught its most important lesson when, still raging out of control, the fire moved into a prescribed burn from a few years before. That prescribed burn had been unpopular in the neighboring community when the Forest Service torched it. Neighbors to the forest complained of smoke, and then there was the threat that the fire might burn out of control. But as the wall of flames from the Hayman Fire spread into that older burn, the fire slowed and firefighters were able to get a measure of control. The community on the other side was buffered. The part of the forest that was managed for fire cooled the out-of-control blaze, and at that point, it didnt matter who started the fire or what resources had been thrown at it to put it out.
Arson should be punished severely, but in the end, finger-pointing is a distraction from the real work that must be done to change public perceptions of fire and its role in nature. Maybe Bartons story is instructive after all, an extreme example of one of the caretakers getting it wrong. Bartons story isnt new; shes the latest, most colorful example in a long line of federal employees who set wildland fires. In fact, Ed Quillen, a columnist for the Denver Post, reported in July that the first recorded wildfire in Colorado was started by three negligent federal employees in 1820. Several members of a military expedition to explore the Front Range of the Rockies broke from the group to climb the mountain that had yet to be named Pikes Peak and left a campfire unattended while they made their ascent. On the way down, they lost their way and spent the night without the provisions they had left at the campfire. After a few hours traveling the next morning, they surmised that the large column of smoke rising in a ravine nearby was that escaped campfire and they descended to collect their gear. History does not tell us that this careless trio was punished for starting a forest fire by leaving a campfire unattended, but it does show that wildfires were not uncommon, even if blazes could not then be blamed on environmentalists or greenhouse gases, Quillen wrote.
Fire presents a problem bigger than any management solution. Weather plays a bigger role than anything in determining when, how much and how long things burn, Whitlock says. And weather changes. The impression that you get over and over again in studying forests over long periods of time is just how dynamic they really are, she says. Forests are constantly changing and are exquisitely sensitive to climate variations.
Whitlock studies the natural record preserved in sediments at the bottom of lakes. Subtle changes in the makeup of pollen, ash and charcoal correlate to changes in climate. The last 2,000 to 3,000 years have been relatively wet with less frequent evidence of fires, but 8,000 years ago, the climate was warmer and drier and fires burned often.
When I hear people blame large fires on fire suppression policies or hear them say the fires we see now result from forest management practices, I am unconvinced, says Whitlock. The forces at work are much larger.