Ecologyforest Fires

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The Los Alamos blaze exposes the missing science

The Cerro Grande fire in New Mexico was stunningly damaging for a prescribed burn. It raged for more than two weeks, consuming some 50,000 acres of national forest and land on and around Los Alamos National Laboratory. It destroyed 230 or so homes, displaced thousands of people, came perilously close to hazardous-materials sites on the nuclear-weapons research facility, scorched precious habitat for the threatened Jemez Mountains salamander and, some have speculated, may have played a role in the mysterious movements of Los Alamos hard drives containing classified material. And the danger posed by the fire has not subsided with the flames. Not only is the lab still vulnerable to ignition because of adjacent unburned forests, but the land is littered with plutonium and other dangerous waste that may be dispersed into the environment if the heavy seasonal rains cause mud slides and flooding.

Yet the blaze may have some positive effects. Perhaps most notably, it has renewed needed discussion about several challenges facing the federal agencies that manage land: the poor health of the national forests, the lack of man power and expertise needed to start and extinguish fires, and the paucity of research on the relative benefit or appropriateness of various approaches— logging, mechanical thinning and controlled burns—to restoring the forests. It has done so at a significant political juncture. Two proposals are now before Congress: one that would ban logging in national forests and one from the Clinton administration urging an end to construction of new roads on those same lands. Both policies, if enacted, could have important consequences for the use of fire in land management.

The Cerro Grande fire made the nation acutely aware of something that has been frighteningly clear to foresters and fire experts: what happened in New Mexico could happen almost anywhere, at any time. Many forests are so filled with fuel— deadwood and saplings resulting from more than a century of logging, grazing (which eliminated grasses that compete with trees) and a long-standing policy of fire suppression—that they are poised to ignite and burn uncontrollably and fiercely. The wildfires that have also raged this year in Colorado, Arizona and other parts of New Mexico are further evidence of this condition. "Everyone is pointing at the fact that Cerro Grande was deliberately set, but that could have easily been a lightning strike," notes Martin E. Alexander of the Canadian Forest Service. "They were burning to prevent the very thing that happened."

The fire that National Park Service employees ignited in Ban-delier National Monument on May 4—and that became a wildfire sweeping toward Los Alamos on May 5—was one of about 3,000 set by federal agencies so far this year. Intentional burns started in the late 1960s, when the government began to recognize that the last half-century of fire quelling was adversely af-

RAGING FIRE near Los Alamos, which lasted almost three weeks, has kindled debate about the role of logging, selective cutting and prescribed burns in the maintenance of healthy forests.

fecting forests, allowing exotic species to take hold and preventing fire-adapted species from thriving. The buildup of fuel was causing flames to burn more intensely, killing off the older trees that typically survive fire and are the key to forest regeneration. As W. Wallace Covington of Northern Arizona University notes, destructive crown fires—those that move through the forest as a sheet of flame instead of hugging the ground—have increased exponentially. Between 1931 and 1950, crown fires burned 12,000 acres in the Southwest; between 1991 and 1997, they consumed 331,000 acres.

The death of 34 firefighters in catastrophic fires in 1994 reinforced the notion that fuel reduction was imperative. And in 1998, after new appropriations and an organizational revision of federal fire-management policy, Secretary of the Interior Bruce Babbitt called for a threefold increase in the number of burns set. Although that precise goal has not been reached, the amount of burned land has grown enormously: from 918,300 acres in 1995 to 2,240,105 in 1999. Less than 1 percent of those fires get out of hand, according to the National Interagency Fire Center: only 257 of the 31,212 fires set by the various federal agencies in the past five years. (Even those few fires can be lethal, however. As Stephen J. Pyne of Arizona State University points out, some of the most deadly fires of the past 20 years were prescribed burns gone awry.)

Despite the widely recognized need to rejuvenate the forests tí

z v z and to forestall an increase in deadly fires, the solution is hotly contested. The logging industry argues that thinning the forests can reduce the threat of fire. "As devastating as Los Alamos was, it was minor," says Derek Jumper of the American Forest and Paper Association, which advocates increased logging. "Our public lands are facing the worst health crisis they have ever faced." Many environmentalists beg to differ. They worry that thinning, or "salvage," just opens the door to full-scale logging, because companies can't make a profit unless they take out the larger trees and because uses for the smaller trees— particleboard or utility poles, for example—may not counterbalance the cost of removal. And neither side trusts the Forest Service's judgment. "There is a lot of Old Testament on all sides: an eye for an eye," Covington explains. "They want to fight and win at all costs."

Some experts, including Covington, are calling for a middle road in the debate: a more nuanced approach that would allow logging, when appropriate, or thin ning or burning—or all three, depending on the needs of the forest. Unfortunately, the science that could provide such guidance is lacking. There are very few long-term studies on the effects of fire applied over time to different ecosystems, says Ronald Myers, director of fire management at the Nature Conservancy. Several reports—conducted by the General Accounting Office and the Congressional Research Service, as well as by the Department of the Interior and the Department of Agriculture, which runs the Forest Service—have noted that there are virtually no data on how various treatments mimic the ecological functions of fire. "Four or five studies have indicated increased fire intensity in the wake of logging," summarizes Niel Lawrence of the Natural Resources Defense Council. "And one study picked two plots nonrandomly and did show a reduction."

Despite decades of controlled burning, studies that may help managers figure out when and where and if to log or burn are just getting under way. C. Phillip Weather-

spoon and Carl N. Skinner of the Forest Service, for instance, are beginning a comparative study of fire and fire surrogates on coniferous forest in California. "I think what is noteworthy is that this is a serious and ambitious study," Lawrence says, "and that the scientists are candid about the lack of empirical information."

Other researchers, Covington and his colleagues among them, are also investigating as many variables as possible, trying to balance fire, thinning, judicious logging and perhaps even the use of horses to remove fuel from roadless lands. As for the Cerro Grande blaze, it will need to be studied as well. Covington worries that the crown fire was atypical for the pon-derosa-pine forests and other habitats and that they may not come back. But it will be a while before the country has any clear procedures that would rejuvenate forests while avoiding millions in damage. "Fire ecology is a really tough field," Pyne says. "All fires are different. It is not like the lab, where you turn on the burner. It just boggles the mind." — Marguerite Holloway

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