October 26, 2007
The Western InfernoBy Bill Croke
The 2007 forest fire season is ending with a costly bang in Southern California, and it is another record breaker. This year much of the American West was under smoky skies for most of the summer.
Even before the California catastrophe, as of October 1st approximately 65,000 fires had burned 8.2 million acres nationwide, destroying 409 homes burned. Seven firefighters lost their lives, to make a total of 113 for the last five years. The United States Forest Service (USFS) has spent roughly $1 billion to fight these fires. Large blazes burned in the South this year, especially in Florida and Georgia, but the majority of these scorched acres were on the Western public lands.
The continuing lethal combinations of drought, bark beetle infestations, and heavy fuel loads due to decades of zealous fire suppression and less logging -along with a brutally hot summer-have produced a fire season not unlike the extreme examples seen periodically since the late 1990s, with burned-acreage totals routinely running five to ten million per summer. Six out of the last eight summers are among the ten worst fire seasons recorded since 1960.
In 1910 a three million acre firestorm roared through the borderland of Montana and Idaho, the legendary "Big Burn" of forest service lore. After that, it was the policy of the USFS to immediately suppress fires. You could call this the "Smoky the Bear" model, though that cute mascot dates from 1944. This prevailing orthodoxy has been questioned since the 1980s, with some fires in remote areas being allowed to burn in the interest of forest health.
The two schools of forestry clashed during the disastrous Yellowstone fires of 1988, when one third of the national park (1.2 million acres) burned, the conflagration almost taking the venerable Old Faithful Inn. The "let it burn" policy doesn't shine well in the media spotlight, especially in a national park.
Forest health also means logging, at least the thinning of crowded tracts that have too many trees per acre. In the last two decades attempts to log national forest lands has brought on much bad behavior from the Green Left and their -- surprise! -- attorneys. Thousands of harassing lawsuits filed over timber sales have produced in the USFS a self described "analysis paralysis", as environmentalists using litigation clog up an already slow bureaucratic process.
The 1970 National Environmental Policy Act (NEPA) and the 1973 Endangered Species Act (ESA) have both proven useful to Greens to hold up timber sales in the courts for years. Witness the Spotted Owl controversy in the Pacific Northwest in the 1980s. It put off limits large tracts of national forest land to logging. Timber companies closed scores of lumber mills and laid off thousands of mill workers and loggers. The timber industry in the region came to a virtual standstill and has never recovered. Towns whose economies depended on these jobs dried up, as did timber revenues that once filled municipal coffers. Nowadays individual counties (Jackson County, Oregon, for instance) and their Congressional delegations petition the federal government for financial aid to help support everything from local law enforcement to public libraries.
In the last two decades annual timber production on the national forests in the West has decreased from roughly 12 billion board feet to less than 3 billion today. This has resulted in brush-choked forests with large "fuel loads" or "deadfall" (downed logs and limbs thickly covering the ground) and second growth trees crowding first growth, thus promoting a "ladder effect" causing more "crown" fires. Add a decade-long Western drought that has encouraged the scourge of bark beetle infestations, and you have a recipe for terrible fire seasons for years to come.
Bark beetles (mostly the Mountan Pine Beetle Dendroctonus Ponderosae) are currently killing millions of acres of Western conifer forests, as the trees lose immunity to them in drought conditions. And the lack of a severely cold winter in the last few years means that this will continue, because extreme cold of -30F is needed over a period of weeks to kill the beetles and break the breeding cycle. Mountainsides throughout the Rockies are shaded a rusty hue, with clueless tourists commenting on the beauty of the red(dead) trees. According to a recent story by Steven K. Paulson of AP, "44 percent of [Colorado's] 1.5 million acres of lodgepole pine are now infested by beetles, or about 660,000 acres."
Near my home in Cody, Wyoming, the last twenty miles of the scenic North Fork of the Shoshone River Highway that leads to Yellowstone National Park is essentially dead. Many of these pine trees are not accessible due to steep terrain, but others are. If not logged they will burn, whether by a careless camper or an errant lightning strike. It's not a question of if, but when.
But when they do burn, they'll still be kept out of the reach of timber companies. Post-fire timber was usually salvageable, with USFS "salvage sales" made available in the following months. But no analysis paralysis means that most burned areas will be left to rot (one to two years) until the trees are worthless, while enviros litigate t new road construction and stream erosion. The Bitterroot Valley in western Montana has been much burned in the last few years, both by fires and lawsuits barring salvage sales. In order to build log homes there, one local construction company imports logs by truck from British Columbia, Canada.
The "backcountry" is simply much busier than it was thirty years ago. More people now venture into remote areas of the public lands (I'm a weekend trail hiker myself). Add cell phones and Global Positioning units, and the national forests near booming cities such as Denver and Boise are extremely crowded on summer weekends. It's a case of being able to be connected while at the same time being "out there". The campgrounds are full; the trails are busy; the fire danger goes up.
The steady demographic expansion of the American West in the last two decades marches into the woods. A recent University of Wisconsin study found that since 1982, 8.6 million new homes have been built within thirty miles of a national forest. Since most of the national forests are in the West, that's where the majority of these homes are found.
This has given us what wildfire ecologists call the "Urban-Wildland Interface" (UWI). Simply put, this means that the more people who reside at close quarters with the public lands increases the likelihood of fires, and the presence of these homes has forever changed the modus operandi of wildland firefighting.
A good example of this was early July's "Angora" Fire, which burned 3,100 acres and 254 homes in South Lake Tahoe, Nevada. Most of these homes stood among tall Ponderosa pines, the ground covered with flammable brown pine needles. For some people, the beauty of living near the woods means literally living in the woods, with sometimes predictable results.
The USFS encourages homeowners to "fireproof" their homes by creating a "defensible space" of thirty feet around it: raking up pine needles, clearing brush, removing small trees, and relocating stacks of firewood. Assuming no endangered species habitats are threatened. They also frown on cedar-shake roofs on these many-times log trophy homes.
Wildland firefighters are increasingly employed as defenders of private property. Whereas thirty years ago the fighting of Western forest fires rarely involved "structures" (homes, barns, etc.), now a large percentage do. The main priority today are those millions of homes in the UWI. In Forest Service jargon this is called the "point of protection".
The USFS had always trained firefighters to operate on offense when fighting a fire, and this is the by-the-book policy. They are now usually on defense in the field, with structure protection the highest priority. If homes are endangered, tactics require the construction of firelines where they normally wouldn't have been built. Foam fire retardant is sprayed on homes and outbuildings. Jim Smalley, a manager of the "Firewise" program for fireproofing education was quoted in an editorial in Montana's Missoulian newspaper:
And the American taxpayer foots the bill. Insurance companies must love it.
A tale of two fires, both occurring in western Montana this past summer shows how expensive it has become to fight fire on the UWIL:
You don't have to be much of a math whiz to see that Jocko Lakes was one third the size of Chippy Creek, yet was seven times more costly to put out.
Ffirefighting costs are now roughly 20% ($2 billion out of an average $4.5 billion allocation) of the USFS annual budget, and will rise exponentially (22% will be allocated for fiscal year 2008) in the coming years. [Christine Dawe, writing from a Forrestry Service email address, calims the accurate figure is 40%.] This money could be better spent on infrastructure projects (trails, campgrounds, educational programs) and related jobs.
Years of mismanagement of the public lands by the US Department of Agriculture, the US Department of the Interior, environmentalists and trial lawyers, are now costing the taxpayers dearly. But that story is as old as a seventy feet tall Ponderosa pine.
Bill Croke is a writer in Cody, Wyoming.