New strategies to burn trees and save a forest
Smokey the Bear will do a slow burn, but the best way to prevent forest fires may be to start a few small ones.
One reluctant conclusion drawn from last year's nasty fire season was that 50 years of fire prevention and suppression on public lands have built up a supply of woody debris that fuels wicked blazes.
Western governors meeting in Idaho and the Bush administration wisely agreed this week to put those lessons into public policy.
The secretaries of Agriculture and Interior will report back next May with new strategies to reduce wildfires over the next 10 years.
They also promised to involve local government officials who have been miffed about their exclusion from decisions and planning. The new ideas are largely the work of a governors' task force.
None of this will be cheap. After fires charred 8.4 million acres last year, the Clinton administration bumped the firefighting budget by $1.7 billion. Congress willingly paid to hire 5,100 more firefighters.
President Bush kept the funding up, but a change in philosophy will require a substantial increase in spending. As Oregon Gov. John Kitzhaber put it at Coeur d'Alene, the money can be spent on fighting fires, or preventing them.
More to the point, James Age, professor of forest ecology at University of Washington, argues the officials will be able to choose the type of fire they deal with.
Trouble has been building in the woods for decades.
Besides creating a fuel supply for more intense fires on the forest floor, fire control allows less-fire-resistant trees to flourish. Lower tree height allows fire to climb vertically faster, and bushier tree crowns allow flames to spread with a vengeance.
• Step one will be an aggressive clean-up plan to tidy up the debris. This will be labor-intensive and expensive. So is fighting a forest fire.
• The second step will be a program of thinning to remove undesirable trees. This is where environmentalists will cringe, but is a basic part of the solution. Thinning is not logging.
What will cause hearts to pound in boardrooms and in increasingly populated forests: prescribed burns.
This is the strategy of identifying forests where naturally caused fires will be allowed to burn, or fires will be intentionally set to mimic nature.
Long a favorite of groups such as the Sierra Club, it has been a tough sell elsewhere. The disastrous May 2000 fire in Bandelier National Monument in New Mexico only stirs opposition.
There, a planned, prescribed burn ran afoul of dry conditions and unpredictable winds to eventually torch 18,000 acres and destroy 235 homes at Los Alamos. Eighteen-thousand people were evacuated before the Cerro Grande fire was contained.
What should come out of that disaster are grim lessons that do not invalidate the use of prescribed burns as a tool.
Forest fires will never go away, and it will always take brave men and women to confront them. What can be changed is the nature and behavior of the fires they face.
Rethinking how wildfires are fought is appropriate and necessary — even if it means some trees must be destroyed to save a forest.