Forest fire strategy: Just let it go

Forest fire strategy: Just let it go

7 November 2006

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USA — In the worst year for wildfires in nearly half a century, it may seem odd to celebrate how well some of them burned. But the Payette National Forest in central Idaho is doing just that.

“It was a real long season, but we got some nice fire effects,” says Sam Hescock, a fire management officer on the 2.3-million-acre forest where more than 150 fires this summer and fall burned about 70,000 acres. “We’re pretty happy with what we got.”

Hescock’s satisfaction reflects a shift in how the federal government approaches fire management. That shift began in earnest a decade ago and is gaining momentum. Land managers at the U.S. Forest Service and other agencies are becoming more comfortable co-existing with fire rather than reflexively trying to stomp it out with all the men and materiel at their command.

A change in thinking

Their reasoning is that fire is a natural part of the landscape that clears out underbrush and small trees and creates forest openings in a mosaic pattern. Such conditions help keep small fires from growing into the kind of large, catastrophic blazes that have become increasingly common in recent years. They now say that decades of aggressively fighting fires was a mistake because it allowed forests to become overcrowded and ripe for fires nearly impossible to control.

“The mentality is changing,” says Greg Aplet, a Denver-based fire scientist with The Wilderness Society, a national environmental group. As fires have burned more acres in recent years and the cost of fighting them has soared, “the obvious answer is not to fight fires we don’t need to fight,” Aplet says. Almost 9.5 million acres have burned so far in 2006.

The shift in thinking was formalized in a 1995 statement of federal fire policy, and strengthened in a 2001 revision. The policy recognizes that fire is “an essential ecological process,” and that decades of trying to keep fires from burning have led, ironically, to “larger and more severe” conflagrations because of the buildup of underbrush and other fuel.

“The task before us — reintroducing fire — is both urgent and enormous,” the 1995 policy concludes.

The Forest Service, National Park Service and Bureau of Land Management now routinely have detailed fire management plans that show where fires don’t have to be fought. The transition has been easiest in unpopulated blocks of land, but increasingly land managers are learning to regulate fires near communities.

Nationally, the goal over the next few years is “to increase our use of wildland fire,” says Tom Harbour, director of fire and aviation management for the U.S. Forest Service.

With a little bit of luck from the weather, the Payette this summer allowed 21 of its fires to burn more than 16,000 acres of forest without trying to put them out. Six of them occurred outside wilderness areas. Idaho statewide had more than 39,000 acres of fires that were managed but not suppressed, or about a quarter of the national total of 165,000 acres.

Even on Payette fires that were largely allowed to burn this summer, crews of trained firefighters frequently intervened, building fire lines, guarding perimeters and helping “steer” the fires away from homes, roads, ranches and other areas that need protection.

Homes never threatened

Some of the fires burned for weeks while being watched by special teams trained to manage blazes near homes and ranches. Partly because forested areas near communities had been thinned previously by intentionally set fires and by cutting small trees, those blazes never threatened homes.

For instance, the tiny village of Yellow Pine, population 36, was surrounded by fire for much of the summer. Several years of brush-cutting and intentionally set fires thinned the forest and helped keep the flames at bay.

The intentional use of fire for forest benefits can be dangerous. In 2000, a fire intentionally set by federal officials to thin New Mexico forests escaped and destroyed 235 homes in Los Alamos. A 2003 fire that officials let burn in Colorado’s San Juan National Forest drew sharp criticism from then-senator Ben Nighthorse Campbell. “This is not the time to ‘monitor potentially dangerous fires,’ ” Campbell wrote the chief of the Forest Service. “It is the time to put them out.”

Prior to this summer, Payette officials had considerable experience managing fires in the 800,000 acres of their forest that lie within the Frank Church River of No Return Wilderness. This year they expanded their methods outside of wilderness and close to communities.

“They learned in the wilderness how to have 10,000-acre fires and not freak out about it,” says John McCarthy, an Idaho-based representative of The Wilderness Society.

“The biggest change is the change in mindset,” says Ken Kerr, a senior officer with a Colorado-based wildland fire use team that spent weeks on the Payette this summer monitoring fires with sophisticated computer programs and using crews on the ground to direct them away from homes and ranches. “You have to fight smarter, not harder.”

This year’s success in the Payette will multiply in the years to come because the 2006 fires thinned forests and created openings that will help “reduce the size of fires in the future,” Payette forest supervisor Suzanne Rainville says.

Hescock, the fire management officer, sees less arduous fire seasons ahead. “My next four years are going to be real easy,” he says.

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