There is a lot that can be said about the catastrophic wildfires that burnt Southern California up like a dry spliff of Mexican shwag. For a long time, fire-control policies were geared towards the management of wild areas. There was constant friction amongst the logging-related interests, conservationists and preservationists. Fire is an absolutely necessary and inevitable component of terrestrial ecosystems. Some systems have evolved to incorporate fire as an integral element of life cycle processes of key species. Many conifers require fire to germinate, for example. However, there is general disagreement on how to manage systems with regard to fire. If untended or unburnt, some systems build up huge fuel loads and explode into catastrophic fires. But this debate has become increasingly complicated due to the huge expansion in the urban/suburban-wildland interface.
A few years ago I had the pleasure of a seminar and talk with Michael Dombeck, former head of the US Forest Service and former Acting Director of the Bureau of Land Managment. This is an excerpt from his speech:
In the wake of sprawl and fragmentation comes concern about fire, especially at what is termed today the “urban-wildland interface,” a fancy term that tells us people are living in places that are half-wild, half-Wal-Mart.The full text of this speech, given in Bryn Mawr, PA in November, 2004, can be found here. More on Mike Dombeck at his website.
Fire has long been on our minds. The Smokey Bear campaign was perhaps the most successful public education campaign in our history. In 1968, more people in America knew who Smokey was than could name the President. Smokey was the second most popular character in the United States. Santa Claus was number one.
Some consider it heresy to say this, but the challenge today is to help people understand that while fire is always dangerous, all fire is not bad. Like wind and water, fire is one of nature’s cleansing agents.
Unhealthy forests today are due to a combination of past timber management practices, exotic and off-site species and the cumulative effects of 100 years of fire suppression. We are good at fighting fire. We have the best firefighters in the world. During several of the past few years, we have spent over one billion dollars fighting fire.
Contrary to media reports, Oregon’s half-million acre Biscuit Fire did not “destroy” the entire landscape. The fire burned at various intensities, leaving some patches of forest scorched but other areas completely untouched. The result was a classic mosaic pattern of burning on the landscape, which benefits many ecosystem functions and restores habitat diversity. According to Forest Service estimates, approximately 16% of the area burned at high severity, 23% at moderate, 41% at low severity, and 20% was unburned. The costs of such massive firefighting efforts are tremendous, over $40 million on this fire in just one day. In the long run, fire will occur one way or another. How fire returns to fire-adapted ecosystems is the question.
The challenge is to put fire back on the land. And do it in a way that doesn’t harm people. Forests evolved with fire and are adapted to withstand fire. If they weren’t, there would be no forests. Our houses and communities adjacent to the forests are the new additions. The development and sprawl are occurring all over the country, and are especially problematic in high fire frequency areas.
The urban-wildland interface is now spread over millions of acres. The millions of dollars that we pour into wildland fire fighting may not save your house. Structural firefighting requires very different skills than fighting forest fires. The most important things you can do to prevent your house from burning as a result of a forest fire are within 200 feet of your house: clear away flammable fuels that carry fire close to your buildings, keep stacks of firewood well away from structures, use fire-resistant roofing and siding materials, and maintain a perimeter of non-flammable material around the house to serve as a firebreak.
I hope the Bush Administration’s ‘Healthy Forests Initiative’ is as intent on implementing an ecologically-balanced fire management plan as it is on rolling back mining regulations, water quality standards and roadless policies. If the wildland fire plan turns into little more than accelerated commercial logging program, it will quickly become a controversial “black hat” program, just like the infamous “salvage rider” did after the bad 1994 fire season when it was dubbed “logging without laws”.