Wildfires, warnings, women, and children

Published October 1, 2000

“Mom, they’ve ordered us to evacuate. What do you want me to save from the house?”

With that phone call, a woman in Michigan learned that her Montana home, and everything in it that wouldn’t fit in her son’s car, were close to being devoured by one of the country’s dozens of wildfires.

The call came just days after the Clinton-Gore administration ordered the Departments of Agriculture and Interior to develop, within 30 days, a solution to the fire problem—what has become the worst wildfire season in 50 years, according to government statistics. Already more than four million acres and hundreds of homes have burned; experts predict several times those numbers will go up in flames. Some fires are burning so hotly they are expected to be extinguished only by the arrival of heavy winter snows.

“Everyone dealing with this issue understood that the high fuel conditions across the country created the potential for a number of complex fire systems occurring simultaneously,” Rep. Helen Chenoweth-Hage said following a visit by President Clinton to fires in Idaho. “It was never a question of ‘if,’ but ‘when.’

“Knowing this,” she continued, “the agencies [involved] should have dramatically geared up their suppression and presuppression activities.”

The General Accounting Office warned the Forest Service in April last year that over 40 million of the 187 million acres of National Forests were at serious risk of uncontrollable wildfires. Nevertheless, the Forest Service mechanically removed overgrowths of fuel from just 1.5 million acres per year, according to Fire Service Chief Mike Dombeck. At that rate, it would take 125 years to reduce fuel loads in National Forests—a rate many times slower than it takes fuel loads to build up.

The Bureau of Land Management, which controls 264 million acres, and the National Park Service, which set the “prescribed” burn that destroyed much of Los Alamos, New Mexico and surrounding areas, report similar over-fuel problems.

The road from success to tragedy

Texas A&M forestry experts Tom Bonnicksen, Ph.D. and University of Kentucky natural resources specialist Jeffrey Edgens, Ph.D. have noted that major strides were made throughout the early twentieth century toward protecting the country’s forest heritage. In the latter decade of the century, however, public policies have begun to erode the progress that took so long to accomplish.

Beginning in the early 1930s, the U.S began a program of aggressive road-building in forest areas. The effort was undertaken originally as a depression-era work project, but continued to make way for more extensive logging during the boom years of World War II and heavy building years that followed. The logging reduced the fuel load in the forests, making fires much cooler-burning and easier to extinguish. The roads made it possible for firefighters to more easily reach any fires they needed to extinguish.

The number of acres lost to forest fires fell during this period, from 50 million acres per year to well under 5 million acres by the late 1950s. That figure remained stable until fairly recently.

Today, logging in national forests has been largely eliminated, down 75 percent overall and as much as 90 percent in some forests. In Alaska’s Kenai Peninsula, the Forest Service will not allow the removal of thousands of acres of trees killed by the Sitka spruce beetle. Logging contracts, which typically called for the removal of brush and undergrowth along with densely growing trees, are no longer issued. Fuel for fires has built up dramatically, according to experts, including the Forest Service’s “on-the-ground” forest supervisors.

At the same time, roads that allow firefighters to reach fires are no longer being built; and in many forests, they are being destroyed. The administration has promoted a “roadless” policy that will preclude the building of new roads in anywhere from 43 to 60 million acres of forest land.

The deputy chief of the Forest Service, Chris Wood, told Environment & Climate News the roadless policy came about because “most forest fires are caused by man.”

But the vast majority of this season’s fires were started by lightning strikes. Two of the current rash of forest fires–the fire that ravaged Los Alamos and one north of the Grand Canyon–were started by man: specifically, U.S. Park Service employees.