On the fire line

Published November 1, 2000

As of mid-September, some 78,406 fires have burned 6.9 million acres of U.S. forests, making Summer 2000 among the nation’s worst fire seasons in a half century. While politicians and academics debate the policy implications, thousands of real Americans battle the blazes. One of them, Alliance for America president Bruce Vincent, filed this report from his home forest, the Kootenai National Forest in northwest Montana, in mid-August.

I just returned from a day on the fire lines. I drove home with flares of trees firing like Roman candles on too many hillsides around our valley to count. Some 165 fires started last Thursday evening, and so far only 29 have been accessed to attempt control.

I’m physically tired, but even more emotionally and intellectually tired of the lazy, glib generalizations of people who talk about the fires but haven’t been there. While some of them may be correct in stating certain facts for micro-ecosystems in the West, the majority of the ecosystems burning right now do not suffer from “depletion of old growth” and “leaving behind” too many trees. Sweeping statements are common from the “stop doing that” crowd, but they fail to address the site-specific reality of the forests that are currently burning . . . including the one that I live in, the Kootenai.

Most of the Kootenai is the by-product of natural and human-caused disturbances that have taken place since the ice cap of the last glaciation period left. Most of the big disturbances have been fire-related. There never was a blanket of old growth with roots reaching subterranean water on our forest. Pockets of old growth forest do exist in the Kootenai–but just pockets.

The recipe for disaster in the inland West has been created by a combination of things. In the Kootenai, the list includes the following:

  • In pre-European settlement days, natural fires normally removed huge segments of forestland vegetation each year. Native Americans aggressively used fire to manage the forest and grasslands for some 20,000 years.
  • The burning by Native Americans largely stopped when the small pox epidemic decimated their populations in the early 1800s.
  • We have been fairly successful in stopping other natural burning with fire suppression techniques since the great fires of 1910.
  • We have not replaced burning by Native Americans or nature with mechanical removal of trees of the type and to the extent necessary to keep fuel (organic, flammable biomass on the forest floor) from building up in the forest. Historically, the Kootenai averaged around 50 tons of debris per acre for fires to consume. The figure now stands near 500 tons.
  • The water pumps (trees) that pull up to 200 gallons of water per day from the ground used to have little competition for available water, because fire killed most little trees and left around 50 to 60 big, thick-barked, fire-resistant trees to the acre. We now have millions of acres with these big trees surrounded by trees that have grown to 50, 75, or 100 feet tall instead of being killed by fire when they were four feet tall.

The Kootenai has an average of 600 trees to the acre now. Those trees are competing for water. When overstocked, even a normal water year can yield a forest that exhibits drought conditions (too many water pumps).

Worse yet, when fire does race through the ecosystem, these trees provide a fuel ladder that the fires climb up and access the crowns of the bigger trees. Areas that have a history of low, cool, stand-enhancing fires are now increasingly subjected to huge, over-heated conflagrations that destroy rather than rejuvenate stands.

  • In the Kootenai, the logging practices of the last 100 years have indeed changed the forests. Forestry is an imperfect science that is evolving with time and knowledge, like any other science. However, those observers who state that logging adds to the problem of forest fires because it allows sunshine to hit the floor are asking the reader to ignore the similar role of tree removal by fire.

Some folks just believe that any role played by man is bad and any role played by nature is good. But to suggest that stopping logging would yield a wave of old growth from sea to shining sea asks the reader to ignore the history of natural and human-caused disturbance. As a result, people pine for a balanced, Disneyesque ecotopoia of the past that in fact never, ever existed.

After decades of listening to anti-logging activists, the well-intentioned public has been persuaded to demand natural management of the forest I live in. They have been persuaded by an emotionally charged and politically correct mantra that ignores the reality of too many water pumps and a stressed, overstocked forest. We have had a normal water year in the Kootenai and yet are living through an August from hell.

Along with the trees, the soils in the forest are being incinerated and, come the rains of fall, we will get to watch blackened ash slide off the mountains and run into our streams. Some of the soils will burn so hot that the natural clay materials will be fired into ceramics. In many places it will take eons to restore the forest that we are sacrificing to the altar of fire.

Habitat for grizzly bears, elk, moose, lynx, bull trout, and humans is being torched. Fires that would be burning cooly along the forest floor are racing up mountainsides using ladders of flame to reach the crowns of the trees.

While I write this, I have family and friends in the mountains fighting to keep at bay these catastrophic fires; family and friends living in shelters because of evacuations; and family and friends choking down the soot of modern forest management at its absolute worst. We are not allowed to thin the forest, but we are called upon the fight the flames.

I can’t even begin to express the dismay my family and community feel while watching our resources burn as our nation increasingly orders our timber products from countries with little or no environmental awareness or the economic ability to be environmentally sound in their management techniques.

This year’s fire season will be over by mid-October. But we’ve only just begun the burn. The stage has been set for decades.

Bruce Vincent is chairman of People for the USA and president of the Alliance for America.

For more information

see Dr. Tom Bonnicksen’s book, America’s Ancient Forests (John Wiley & Sons, March 2000, 304 pages), available for $75 through Amazon.com.