USA–– Forest fires that swept through northwest Nebraska last month would have caused less damage and threatened less property if the region’s trees had been more aggressively managed, a state forestry official says.
Nebraska District Forester Doak Nickerson said the forest was overgrown in many places, giving the flames more fuel and triggering dangerous canopy-level fires that might have been avoided.
Nickerson said the massive and unusually intense fires illustrate the need for better maintenance of forestland. The fires burned more than 100 feet high in some places, complicating efforts to contain the flames. Other blazes ran downhill, contrary to normal fire movement.
“It was some of the worst and most dangerous fire behavior I’ve ever seen in my life,” said Nickerson, who is based out of a University of Nebraska extension office in Chadron. “It still scares me. Those are the kind of fire conditions where you hope and pray that no one gets hurt.”
Fires in the Nebraska Panhandle, including Pine Ridge timber country, burned about 258 square miles across a three-county area in late August and early September. The fires were the latest in a summer marked by dry lightning, fierce winds, and extreme heat and drought.
Nickerson said slightly less than half of the area burned in the Panhandle fires was forest land. Of that forested area, less than 15 percent was actively managed, a term that includes activities such as logging, grazing, thinning out diseased and insect-infested trees, and purposely setting controlled fires to clear brush that can feed a fire.
“I hate to tell anyone after this disaster that I told you so, because no one takes that well, and that’s not what I want to do,” Nickerson said. “But from a forest perspective, we could have done some things differently.”
He said private landowners lack the resources to tackle the problem alone. The Nebraska Forest Service has a fund to help cover the cost of logging, he said, but “quite frankly, we have way more demand than we do dollars.”
The forest and grasslands burned are a combination of state, federal and privately owned property. Federal officials who oversee roughly one-third of the burned area had been working for years to thin the forest before this year’s drought hit, said Jane Darnell, forest supervisor for the Nebraska National Forest and Grassland. Darnell said federal and state forestry officials have joined forces to prepare the forests for natural fires. But she added: “We certainly have a ways to go.”
Darnell said crews will likely focus now on an area east of U.S. Highway 385, which includes homes and the Pine Ridge Jobs Corps Center. The area survived this year’s fire, but Darnell said it was also threatened in 2006.
Nickerson said more trees need to be harvested for wood products, such as furniture and heating fuel. He pointed to Chadron State College’s wood-fired heating and cooling system, which regulates the temperature in all campus buildings. The boiler system runs on wood chips that would otherwise be considered waste, and it meets federal environmental standards.
The wood could also serve as an additive for traditional coal, he said. Nickerson said mixing a small amount of wood into the coal would reduce emissions and provide another use for the wood.
Nickerson said logging serves a dual purpose: It helps thin the trees so the fires have less to burn, and requires logging companies to build and pay for access roads through dense forest that firefighters can later use. The roads also serve as a perimeter to prevent prescribed burns from growing out of control.
“The market for those forest products help pay for those access roads,” Nickerson said. “It’s not tourism. It’s not bird-watchers. It’s not well-intentioned preservationists who think the forest should be left to its own volition.”
Nickerson said recent cooler temperatures have eased the fire threat. The forest also is filled with ponderosa pines, a species that has evolved with thicker bark and efficient water-storage to adapt to drought conditions and fire.
“With that said, though, we’re not out of the fire season,” he said. “Everything’s still bone dry, and everything burns.”