Forest Service runs into obstacles while trying to suppress fewer fires

Forest Service runs into obstacles while trying to suppress fewer fires

25 March 2011

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USA — For years, federal land managers have aimed at letting wildfires burn to boost forest health — and save taxpayers some of the billions the government spends dousing nearly every blaze.

“We’re looking for opportunities to let fire play its natural role in the landscape,” regional U.S. Forest Service chief Rick Cables said this week.

But Colorado’s growing population and energy industry near forests, combined with surging numbers of wildfires, is making a let-it-burn approach increasingly difficult.

Twenty-seven wildfires have threatened the northern Front Range suburbs this month, nine times the 15-year March average of three.

Rather than try to let some wildfires burn to stimulate forests and grasslands, federal officials have moved into traditional suppression, mobilizing ground crews early and pushing to pre-position slurry bombers on runways to stop the flames.

Over the past year, federal land managers in Colorado let 30 remote wildfires run their course, agency data show. Meanwhile, more than 3,000 wildfires were suppressed in Colorado.

Nationwide, firefighters suppress about 99 percent of the more than 71,000 wildfires that break out each year, mostly in Western states.

“When health, safety or property issues are at stake, the federal government will be aggressive in its fire suppression efforts,” said Harris Sherman, the Obama administration’s agriculture undersecretary for natural resources and environment, who oversees the Forest Service.

Still, “we’re open to natural and prescribed fires as a tool” — very carefully managed, Sherman said.

Suppressing fire is expensive. The Forest Service, which manages about 14 million acres in Colorado, spends about $2.5 billion nationwide — about half the agency’s budget — on firefighting. The Bureau of Land Management, managing 8.3 million acres in Colorado, spends another $177 million.

Unusually dry and warm conditions across Colorado this spring are expected to increase the cost burden.

Environmental costs are increasing too, said Colorado State University fire ecology professor Bill Romme.

“Fire has a stimulating effect on vegetation. It clears out dead matter and stimulates vigorous new plant growth, especially grasses and shrubs,” he said. “It thins out dense forests, allowing more light and nutrients. Where and when you can do it, it’s really beneficial to allow wildfires to burn.”

By suppressing so many wildfires, “we’re setting ourselves up for worse problems,” he said. “We can put them out in the short term. But eventually, they’re going to be burning, and the fire may be more intense and more difficult to control than it would have been.”

U.S. Sen. Mark Udall and federal agency leaders are pressing for more money to deal with the epidemic of beetles that — partly as a result of fire suppression — have left millions of forest acres dying and dead.

Yet records show that long-planned Forest Service projects to selectively thin forests have lagged. This has frustrated would-be loggers and some communities.

Similarly, a federal initiative to team up with local groups to “treat” 1.5 million forest acres along the Front Range — using prescribed fires and selective cutting — in order to lessen the severity of wildfires has not kept pace. Forest officials this week said only 180,000 acres have been treated since the project began five years ago.

Two years ago, a congressional inquiry into federal spending to suppress wildfires prompted BLM officials to hone their strategy, said Todd Richardson, a fire specialist at BLM’s Colorado headquarters.

“It’s clearer now that (letting some wildfires burn) is OK to do,” Richardson said. “It’s like doing a spring cleaning on your house.”

BLM managers will pursue this “where it has been deemed ecologically appropriate and safe,” he said.

The catch is the shrinking of that safe space. For example, proliferating energy industry pipelines and wells have forced redesignation of once-remote areas as the new equivalent of “urban interface” — requiring aggressive suppression.

Energy companies may be asked to help by creating defensible space around facilities, Richardson said.

Firefighting supervisors, bracing for another exceptionally long season, this week repeated appeals to homeowners. They urged people living near forests and grasslands to start watering dry lawns and remove flammable material, such as propane tanks.

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