It has taken the better part of a century to get where we are – we aren’t going to “fix” things with a review and some knee-jerk responses.
by Bruce Suenram (President, IAWF 2002).
(Reprinted from the September/October 2002 issue of Wildfire Magazine.)
By the time weather closes the book on the 2002 fire season, taxpayers will be looking at a bill estimated to be from $1 billion to $1.5 billion for just suppression activities. Personal property losses haven’t been totaled, but an estimated 60,000 people were evacuated from their homes, and many of them had no homes to return to after the fires. The disruption of their lives, the effects of the anxiety and fear, and the dreams los t can’t be tallied in conventional ways.
Some people have taken a basic ecological view of this changing face of fire in the United States and the lack of success at controlling fires. Traditionalists perceived fire in one of two ways: either as the enemy to be eliminated, or as a too l for cleaning up woody debris and improving vegetative conditions. The new approach sees fire as an ecological force with which
wildland ecosystems evolved. Ecosystem components and processes are not only compatible with fire, but some are dependent on fires of specific intensities and frequencies. Society’s well-intentioned efforts to eliminate fire from ecosystems whose ecology is so intertwined with fire are now believed to be leading to serious problems of fuel accumulation and vegetative diversity loss.
Reduction of federal lands treated by logging also contributes to the situation. The Forest Service has developed an inventory of areas in the West where the typical fire intervals of ecosystems have been altered by fire suppression efforts. A casual look at the map of those areas shows that many of the largest and most serious fires in 2002 were located in the areas having fire-adapted ecosystems dominated by ponderosa pine overstories, which had missed multiple fire intervals. Of those fires, 26 have accounted for about one-fourth of the acreage burned in 2002. They have resulted in the evacuation of 46,000 people, the loss of 1,269 structures and suppression costs estimated at $364 million.
Looking at the results of a bold plan implemented in 1972, which allows naturally occurring fires in wilderness to burn und er carefully prepared prescriptions, can provide empirical lessons. During the 2000 fire season, 60 wilderness fires burned with no suppression efforts – hardly noticed and seldom mentioned – without leaving wilderness boundaries. One of the major factors contributing to that scenario was the mosaic of vegetation and fuels that had resulted from the 30 years of fires.
I’m not advocating application of free-ranging fires everywhere, but we have to take notice of the principles applicable to fire-dependent ecosystems. We should use all methods available to manage wildland vegetation while meeting the wide array of management goals and objectives. Research indicates that there are ways to achieve the goals while protecting homeowners and adjacent wild lands. Full implementation will require significant innovation in laws, regulations, technology and market development.
The debates about how to prevent the problems experienced in the 2002 season are gaining momentum and volume.The focus is on what did not work in 2002 and how to prevent a recurrence. Fingers are pointing, and overly simplistic solutions are being espoused. The feasibility of some proposals is suspect. There are attempts to disenfranchise some groups who have legitimate interests in the wildlands. We don’ t have to look too far back to see that the solutions being proposed today are very similar to those we have heard in the past. If they haven’t worked before, why would we hope they would work now? It has taken the better part of a century to get where we are – we aren’t going to “fix” things with a review and some knee-jerk responses.
A fresh, inclusive look is required, and this is a great time to take advantage of the concern, outrage and passion arising from the unacceptable outcomes of the 2002 fire season. This approach should be forward-looking, not one dwelling on the failed efforts and perceived problems of the past. It should focus on creating a common vision of what we as a society want for the future, and on developing programs to get there.