Study: People accept fire for forest health

     Study: People accept fire for forest health

15 May 2008

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Vast majority of Americans feel it is necessary to use controlled burns and cutting to maintain healthy forest densities

By Tom Atzet

USA — Have you been to Boise lately? I was stranded there in 1979 waiting for the fog to lift at the Portland airport. Back then, it felt like a small city, with fewer than half of today’s 640,000 inhabitants. However, you can still find a bit of the small-town atmosphere. I’ll come back to that.

By comparison, 80,000 people live in Medford, 20,000 live in Ashland and in Merlin, the cultural capital of southwest Oregon, there are just over 3,000. Like Boise, we are proud of and value our respective rural forests and rangeland environments. We know that natural processes provide clean water and air and a fantastic place to live and play.

Back to Boise. Although I was there to learn about the results of a poll on our nation’s attitude toward wildland fire (I’ll come back to that, too), Boise’s famed Basque community held my interest. All my grandparents came from the Basque region of the Pyrenees. I had hopes of getting a little reminder of my Spanish ancestry when I noticed a Basque Community Center across the street.

From the outside, the Center looked vacant. There were about five people inside. The chairs were stacked against the walls and what I took to be the dance floor was deserted. After all, it was early Wednesday evening. Taking a deep breath, I looked around, absorbing the ambiance.

The woman behind the bar, who looked Basque to me, said, “You look Basque.” She could have just as easily said, “You look confused.” After all, I was just standing there with a dumb smile on my face. Then Charley popped in to say our ride had arrived. I left thinking that is probably the closest to Spain I’ll ever get, and it was rather pleasant. Now back to our poll on attitudes about wildland fire.

Since the results of the poll reflect the attitudes of people nationwide, including Boise, Medford, Ashland and Merlin, there are likely no surprises to anyone. The first “non-surprise” is that fire and ecosystem health are not the No. 1 national concern. The economy, the war and global warming rank much higher. The concerns about uncontrolled fire tend to be much higher in areas currently burning or that have recently burned, another non-surprise.

The biggest concern about wildland fire is the safety of our firefighters, the safety of the residents who live in or near forests and grasslands, and the protection of their homes.

It’s a safe bet that finding reflects local attitudes, and the data overwhelmingly support it.

It is a bit of a surprise that most people accept natural fire as necessary to maintain forest health. They know that suppressing every single fire allows fuels to accumulate. In the long run, landscapes with an unnatural fuel load generate more severe fires. Many remembered the 1988 fires in Yellowstone that were publicized as catastrophic and were wrongly said to have destroyed the park. We have a local example. We were told the Silver fire (1987) destroyed much of our Kalmiopsis Wilderness. In both cases, fires acted as a “reset button” (see last month’s column on the Mt. St. Helens eruption). Native plants quickly bounced back, providing new genetic combinations for the current climate to appraise, a virtual rejuvenation.

The vast majority of Americans feel it is necessary to use controlled burns and cut undergrowth and trees to maintain healthy forest densities. In the long run, healthy forests are seen as providing clean water, air, habitat and recreational opportunities for everyone, regardless of where they live.

Not surprisingly, people feel that collaborative fire teams can safely decide when and where to allow natural fires to take their natural course. Such a strategy is seen as increasing the safety of the rural homeowners. In addition, people believe it will be more cost effective.

Meeting in Boise was a good experience. Having the opportunity, however brief, to visit the downtown Basque Community Center was something I will remember. That is just a small personal thing. More importantly, I think people understand that fire can be either destructive or sustaining. They know they have choices. Once again, they got it right.

Tom Atzet is a retired Forest Service ecologist living in Merlin.

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