Fires Normal Part of Ecology

Fires Normal Part of Ecology

20 December 2007

published by 

by Brian Bird

USA — Fear is the tool of authoritarians and has been used effectively throughout human history to serve the agenda of a few. But no good policy, whether it’s national security, economic or environmental, comes from a place of intimidation— especially when it’s formed by individual events such as 9/11 or fires like Cerro Grande and those in California this year. Yet David Cohen, the co-owner of Western Water and Power Production, still finds this abhorrent tactic useful.

Contrary to Mr. Cohen’s completely groundless assertions (Guest View, Telegraph, Dec. 6), fire is nothing new to western landscapes, but we’ve forgotten how to live with it and adapt to nature’s own tool for cleaning up forests. Our Native American brethren certainly remember— they used it as an effective tool for hunting and creating favorable habitats for their preferred plants and animals. As a child growing up in the foothills of Southern California, I remember warm November evenings gazing into the hills at the glowing chaparral fires. It was normal and awe inspiring.

We now live in these burnable landscapes in numbers greater than ever and relearning to live with fire requires cost-effectively defending our communities. We cannot fireproof forests, but we can fireproof homes. We must ask hard questions and request leadership from our state and county governments on where development will take place and what building materials will be required. Living in the “fireplain” is no different than living in the floodplain of the Mississippi or in the path of hurricanes along the Gulf Coast. No amount of thinning our forests, for biomass energy or otherwise, will stop fires under the worst weather conditions.

Directly contrary to Mr. Cohen’s declaration that “California showed homes remained untouched where forest thinning programs were implemented, while hundreds of homes were destroyed where it was not,” scientists with the U.S. Forest Service maintain that the protection of a home depends entirely on treatment of the “home ignition zone”— the home itself and the area within 60 meters (200 feet) of the home. Those scientists conclude “the evidence suggests that wildland fuel reduction for reducing home losses may be inefficient and ineffective. Inefficient because wildland fuel reduction for several hundred meters or more around homes is greater than necessary for reducing ignitions from flames. Ineffective because it does not sufficiently reduce firebrand ignitions.” For the photographic evidence the Cerro Grande fire see:–pub–examlosalamos.pdf.

Climatic conditions drive all big fires— not fuels. All substantial fires occur only if there is extended drought, low humidity, high temperatures and, most importantly, high winds. When conditions are “ripe” for a large blaze, fires will burn through all kinds of fuel loads. For this reason, most fires go out without burning more than a few acres; approximately 1 percent of all fires are responsible for about 95 percent to 99 percent of the acreage burned.

Under severe conditions, fires burn through all kinds of fuel loads including thinned/logged forests. Contrary to what the U.S. Forest Service has stated about the Ojo Peak Fire, local witnesses have said the fire blew right through the hotter, drier thinned forests where the cooling effect of forest canopy had been removed.

Keep in mind that large stand-replacement fires have always occurred under the “right” conditions. In relative terms, the amount of acreage that is burned by wildfire annually is still far below historic levels. From 1500 to 1800, an average of 145 million acres burned every year nationwide— about 18 times the recent annual burn total. By the 1930s, 50 million acres in the lower 48 were burned annually by wildfire and by the 1970s the number of acres had dropped to 5 million. The annual average acres burned in fires in the lower 48 since 1990 is 5 million and since 2000 it is only 7 million.

So the idea that we have some kind of crisis in our forests may be nothing more than a consequence of short-term memory loss and the desire of a few to make money off of people’s fears.

Given climate change, we are going to experience larger fires and more insect outbreaks as forests seek to balance themselves to changing climate.

This is a sign of forest health, not of unhealthy forests as many assert.

This doesn’t mean we have to let fires burn up people’s homes. Reducing the flammability of the home— not thinning the forest— is the most sensible response. Installing metal roofs and removing flammable materials from the immediate area surrounding homes has been shown over and over again to be critical to home survivability in large blazes.

Mr. Cohen asserts that our state government has said that “landowners in the area are not serious about removing brush and cannot be trusted to honor contracts” and that “locals and the Land Commissioner do not care that the nearby forests are on the verge of explosion.” Actually, his company applying for nearly $30 million in taxpayer subsidies has failed to demonstrate that it can secure a sustainable supply of chipped forests and its application forms have been incomplete twice. It is no one’s fault but the company’s that the approval process has been time-consuming. We should hope that this is not an indication of how the biomass plant and our forests will be managed.

Championing the biomass plant in Estancia as a solution to wildfire is a Trojan horse and it is being marched out to exploit our fears. That’s natural, fire is scary— but so is a profit-driven energy scam that does nothing to face the fact that our dry, high deserts are not the place for energy generated from forests.

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