Andy Kerr

Conservationist, Writer, Analyst, Operative, Agitator, Strategist, Tactitian, Schmoozer, Raconteur

Re-educating Smokey Bear on Merits of Fire

By Andy Kerr

Column #3 - Go to next column

Length: 802 words

Published: 29 August 1996, Wallowa County Chieftain

Both ecology and economics require us to rethink our attitudes toward wild fire. Smokey Bear needs to go to school and then get a new job.

Thanks to 50 years of indoctrination, 98% of Americans can finish this sentence: "Only you...." While we humans can and should be careful with campfires, we can't prevent lightning from starting fires, nor should we want to.

Ecologically, fire is a vital component to the health and function of ecosystems in the arid West. Periodic fire rejuvenates these ecosystems. Some tree species will reproduce only after a fire. The natural fire-return interval in low- and mid-elevation ponderosa pine and mixed conifer forests is as short as seven years. Fires maintain ecological integrity, control forest pests, and release a steady supply of nutrients into the soil.

A century and more of logging, grazing, fire suppression, roading and development has resulted in the degradation of these magnificent forests. Without periodic fires, fire-tolerant, sunlight-loving species such as ponderosa pine and larch give way to fire-sensitive, shade-tolerant species such as Douglas-fir and true firs. The big pines and larches have also been decimated by logging.

Moist north-slope and streamside forests, as well as high elevation lodgepole pine and Englemann spruce/subalpine fir forests remain relatively unchanged as their natural fire frequency is much less. Unlogged areas are also in relatively good shape.

The greatest imbalance are the south-slope ponderosa pine stands which had a naturally high fire frequency and have also been most hammered by logging.

To restore these fire-dependent forests to full health and function, fire must be reintroduced and logging and grazing reduced.

Logging has not only diminished the quantity and quality of forest, it also makes the fires more intense. "In general, rate of spread and flame length were positively correlated with the proportion of area logged" states a new report by Forest Service scientists.

Livestock grazing has eliminated the fine fuels necessary to carry low-intensity surface fire (most fires don't burn the entire stand of trees) and has also allowed ever greater numbers of tree seedlings to survive to maturity, creating fuel build-ups.

Too many people view a stand of trees as a snapshot in time. We need to look broadly both across the landscape and over time. A stand of burned trees is but the beginning of the next forest and there is a stand of trees which has grown up near by to replace it (assuming we didn't log it all).

Economically, out actions toward fire are folly.

The government spends hundreds of millions of dollars each summer and accomplishes very little. The science is clear. Most fires that start go out almost immediately and those that don't in dry weather and high winds, little can be done to stop them. Listen to almost any news story and you'll notice that the fire was contained when the weather changed or it had nothing left to burn.

A bulging fire bureaucracy and corps of fire contractors has been established around "fighting" fires. Federal and state agencies have a blank check and no accountability. Some fires are started by those who gain financially from "fighting" them.

Increasingly, resources are being spent attempting to defend, not forests, but misplaced buildings. "We should recognize that people who construct homes in fire-prone environments are just as imprudent as someone who parks a car on a railroad track," says ecologist and author George Wuerthner. Like a flood, a fire may not come often, but when it does the results are predictable. People who choose to live in the path of nature should accept the risks themselves, rather than expecting the taxpayers to spend any amount to save their foolish investment.

The government might consider simply pouring dollar bills out of C-5A cargo planes directly on to the fire in an attempt to smother it. It may well be less expensive and more effective.

While our front-line fire-fighters exhibit great valor, they are often putting their lives in jeopardy to either ineffectively oppose a natural and good phenomena or to defend someone's residence which shouldn't have been built there in the first place.

Government should spend less money "fighting" fire and more money managing fire including fire-breaks around towns and property that can be effectively defended and is both worth and in need of the defending. Let the summer fire-fighters become year-round fire-technicians.

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