Uncle Sam Gets Burned Out West

Some say the world will end in fire,” wrote the poet Robert Frost, “some say in ice.” But after the wildfires U.S. westerners recently witnessed – and are likely to see again, if dire predictions hold true – most now probably side with Frost, who held with those “who favor fire.”And well they should. The runaway blaze that blackened nearly 48,000 acres of New Mexico's forests and ripped through Los Alamos – claiming more than 400 homes and a handful of historic structures – was the result of bureaucratic bumbling at the Bandelier National Monument, where it was set as part of a “prescribed burn” program to clear underbrush.”It was a systemic failure in the park service,” said Interior Secretary Bruce Babbitt, declaring a 30-day halt to prescribed fires and promising taxpayers will pick up the check for the damages inflicted on Los Alamos. “I think we are going to have to go back as a result of this investigation and revamp the fire program from A to Z.”But the earth-scorcher in New Mexico – as well as another in Arizona, where a prescribed burn “got away” from its starters that very same week, burning more than 13,000 acres near the north rim of the Grand Canyon – underscored a far more ominous fact. Decades of federal fire-suppression efforts, in which Uncle Sam has tried to outfox Mother Nature, already have turned much of the American West into a tinderbox that is ruthlessly unforgiving of such mistakes and from which no easy escape seems possible.”These forests are too thick,” Babbitt told NBC's Today show. “They're explosive, they're dangerous and the reason is that fire has been excluded for 100 years and there is too much fuel in the forests, too many trees.”Too many trees? It must have been the first time in his long tenure at Interior that the devotedly “green” Babbitt has been heard uttering that three-word phrase. But in the American Southwest of a century ago, the average stand of ponderosa pine may have had 20 to 60 trees per acre, while today it might contain 300 to 900 trees an acre.National parks and forests only recently became aggressive in setting small, low-intensity fires as a way of clearing dry wood and undergrowth that have built up in forests over decades of federal fire-suppression activities and which might otherwise fuel larger, more catastrophic fires. And a small percentage of such fires “escape” containment each year. But federal land managers today are trying to burn out the underbrush that has accumulated as fuel over decades when suppressing fires was a higher priority than setting them. As a result, with each year that prescribed fires become more necessary, they also become more dangerous to manage – meaning that the prescribed-burn moratorium declared by Babbitt and Agriculture Secretary Dan Glickman in the wake of the Bandelier debacle is likely to make the crisis even more acute later this year, when the hot summer winds begin to blow and the dead wood and debris not cleared out this spring start to snap, crackle and pop.”Any time we plan [a prescribed burn] and we don't get around to doing it, the risk [of an even bigger fire] is there because the elevated fuels are still there,” according to a U.S. Forest Service fire specialist in Montana.Although the overall number of wildfires in U.S. national parks has declined from 881 in 1990 to 640 in 1999, for instance, the total number of acres consumed by the fires that do get started has risen from 183,177 in 1990 to 192,881 last year.This smoldering menace may have taken many politicians by surprise, but warnings of an impending crisis have been out there. The inferno that in 1988 reduced large swaths of Yellowstone National Park (approximately 750,000 acres) to a lunar landscape served as a wake-up call for some and brought pledges from federal land managers to head off future “Yellowstones” with a more proactive burn program (see waste & abuse, Nov. 23, 1998).As a result, the number of prescribed fires set by the National Park Service rose from 182 fires in 1990, “treating” nearly 83,000 acres, to 319 burns last year, affecting 132,655 acres. Federal land managers burned 2 million acres a year on average between 1995 and 1999; between 1986 and 1994, set fires consumed an annual average of 685,000 acres.A 1998 report by Northern New Mexico's Santa Fe National Forest (abutting the town of Los Alamos) warned of a 30 percent chance in the following five years that a wildfire exceeding 5,000 acres would strike near the western side of the national laboratory – just as it did. And though seemingly far removed from the western mountains, basins and ranges, the U.S. General Accounting Office, or GAO, has been warning of the growing wildfire menace and making recommendations about how to prepare for it since September 1998, when it published Western National Forests: Catastrophic Wildfires Threaten Resources and Communities.Since 1984, the annual average number of fires that burn 1,000 acres or more has increased from 25 to 80, the GAO pointed out, and the total average number of acres burned by each of these fires has increased from 164,000 to 765,000. Naturally, the costs of controlling such fires also have grown exponentially – from $134 million in 1986 to $335 million in 1994, not including the higher costs of preparedness and their huge impact on public health, the environment and private property.In spite of a 1997 Forest Service proposal to clean out the overfueled forests by 2015 – a strategy that if fully implemented might cost as much as $12 billion, according to GAO, but leave unaddressed the huge problem of how and where to dispose of the accumulated dry wood and undergrowth – the danger to the booming cities of the inland West will persist into the foreseeable future. In 1995 the Forest Service estimated that about one-third (or 39 million acres) of the lands it manages in the interior West were at risk of “large, uncontrollable, catastrophic wildfires,” reported GAO, and tens of millions more faced a moderate danger from wildfires.Not only has federal fire-suppression policy endangered Western communities such as Los Alamos, it also is potentially harmful to forests that haven't been singed. Dense stands of timber unthinned by small fires become more susceptible to disease and insects, GAO pointed out, and less resistant to future blazes because fire-friendly trees begin to predominate.In April 1999, GAO sounded the alarm again, calling on the Forest Service to develop a cohesive strategy for countering the growing threat of wildfires. But last summer, in testimony before Congress, GAO official Barry Hill reported that the Forest Service seemed to be making little headway in that effort and did not appear to be making the implementation of a fuel-reduction strategy a top agency priority. GAO in another report found problems in wildfire-fighting preparedness by the Forest Service and Bureau of Land Management, or BLM. These include the fact that both agencies were facing a manpower crisis because few people want to risk their lives fighting forest fires, and that the two agencies, though expected to work together in many forest emergencies, were planning to procure different types of possibly incompatible radio equipment.Besides more and larger controlled burns, another way to hasten the defueling of federal forests is having them thinned out by timber companies. Although logging opponents are loath to admit it, there is little question among experts that the decline of timber harvesting on federal lands has helped create the problem. But that approach is anathema to many environmental groups, who see it as a Trojan horse for allowing timber interests to pillage the forests.A frustrated Frank Gladics, president of the Independent Forest Products Association, has said that the New Mexico and Arizona debacles necessitate a rethinking of Clinton-administration policies that have emphasized a burning strategy over a logging strategy. “First [Interior] Secretary Bruce Babbitt and Chief of the Forest Service Mike Dombeck refused to utilize thinning or timber harvesting to reduce [forest] fuel levels, then they go ahead and have their employees strike a match,” said Gladics. “We hope Congress will look to the root causes of these fires and hold the top leadership responsible for their dangerous strategy. The events of the last several weeks have convinced us this administration hasn't matured enough in their resource decision-making process to be allowed to play with matches.”Logging may not sit well with the environmentalists, says Gladics, “but when was the last time anyone heard complaints about loggers rampaging through neighborhoods indiscriminately burning down homes and destroying communities?” Letting the forests burn has run counter to the American land ethic since 1887, when the first chief of the U.S. Forest Service, Gifford Pinchot, declared the burning of trees a waste of valuable resources – a message drummed into more recent generations by the stern admonitions of Smokey Bear.But the forest-fuel crisis may necessitate a maturing in people's perceptions, as well as an evolution of public policy. Perhaps, in the not-too-distant future, schoolchildren will hear Smokey Bear saying: “Remember, kids, only you can prevent forest fires. But sometimes, maybe you shouldn't.”