Fires By Design: Bob Nelson Op-Ed in Washington Post

Published in the Washington Post

Published in the Washington Post

August 9, 2000

This year's forest fire season in the West may be the worst in 30 years. By now, an area larger than Connecticut–4 million acres–has burned, and more is likely to come before the fire season peaks in the weeks ahead.

These fires are not random acts of nature. They are the result of government policy decisions that have backfired. Washington decision-makers lost a gamble that the weather would remain wet enough and the winds low enough to avoid looming catastrophic fire.

The current wave of devastating fires has resulted from an unnatural buildup of dry, highly flammable excess wood. Before the government began to suppress forest fires early in the 20th century, frequent small fires cleaned out the underbrush. Large ponderosa pines often grew in open stands with densities between 20 and 55 trees per acre. Now, as a result of preventing forest fires, much smaller trees often grow in the same places with densities of 300 to 900 trees per acre.

When a forest fire does break out today, it burns much more intensely. Fires like this have nothing to do with the lighter fires that historically were a natural part of the ecological cycle. They are extremely costly to fight and do wide damage to the forest environment. According to Forest Service figures, fully 60 percent of the land in the U.S. national forest system today is in an unhealthy condition and faces an abnormal fire hazard. The largest part of the forest acreage now burning is national forest land. The Los Alamos fire in May started as a prescribed burn on Bandelier National Monument but soon spread to the Santa Fe National Forest, where most of the actual burning occurred.

Forest experts have long predicted that a fire season like 2000 was only a matter of time. In 1994, the National Commission on Wildfire Disasters warned of "an extreme fire hazard from the extensive buildup of dry, highly flammable forest fuels" across the West. By 1998, there was wide recognition at the highest levels of government of these grave dangers. Barry Hill, associate director of the General Accounting Office, testified to Congress that an "increasing number of large, intense, uncontrollable and catastrophically destructive wildfires" were being seen across the West. As a result of past fire suppression, "vegetation [had] accumulated, creating high levels of fuels and transforming much of the region into a tinderbox."

Even if the Forest Service wanted to address these problems, the agency was blocked by political pressures and a misguided ideology from taking effective action. There are three possible ways to reduce the excess wood now contained in the forests of the West. It can be burned in small, prescribed fires. It can be removed mechanically by cutting down the trees with chain saws or other means. Or it can be left to burn in occasional large and unintended conflagrations, as has been happening this year.

To the extent that it acted at all, the Clinton administration opted for prescribed burning. Federal forest managers have in fact been under pressure to raise the levels of prescribed burns, and they have increased them significantly. But this government response has been altogether inadequate to the growing fire hazard.

Use of prescribed burning is inhibited by the risk, as seen at Los Alamos, that a prescribed fire will get out of control, and decades of fire suppression have greatly increased this likelihood. The weather has to be just right; the total costs of planning and controlling prescribed fires would run to many billions of dollars; and the fires often create air pollution problems.

The main alternative is for the Forest Service simply to remove much of the excess fuels by mechanical means. The Denver Water Board, for example, is working with timber companies and other parties to cut down trees to restore forest health in its watershed area.

But mechanical removal is at odds with Clinton administration policy. Since 1989, timber harvests on national forests have fallen from 12 billion board feet per year to less than 3 billion. Environmental groups see any tree cutting as a subterfuge for more timber harvesting. Some of the unwanted wood in western forests could in fact be removed profitably. But the Forest Service instead is acting to make any such commercial removal more difficult, recently announcing a moratorium on any road building on 43 million acres of national forests.

Yet if prescribed burning is not able to do the job, and mechanical removal is politically unacceptable, the de facto policy amounts to burning the West. Politicians and the press have rushed to heap blame for the many infernos this year on the weather, irresponsible campers' fires and mistakes by low-level government officials. But it was national policy that set the stage for all these fires in 2000 by permitting huge–and still accumulating–inventories of wood to develop in the forests.

In many areas the only way to remove the excess fuels is to go in and cut the wood. If federal forest managers continue in denial of this common-sense approach, the West can expect to see even worse fire seasons in years to come.

The writer is a professor in the School of Public Affairs at the University of Maryland and a senior fellow at the Competitive Enterprise Institute.