With millions going up in smoke to fight wildfires, ecosystems across the country are adapting to life with the threat and the reality of fire.

-by Rocky Barker

An intense crown fire blazes through a ponderosa pine stand in the Black Hills National Forest. (Credit: Karen Wattenmaker)

In a scene that has become frighteningly familiar for residents across the West, a wall of fire roared through the crown of the forest into the Idaho mountain hamlet of Secesh Meadows. But as the raging East Zone Complex fire reached the edge of the community of spread-out, mostly second homes, the flames dropped to the ground, immediately losing their intensity. The fire crept along the ground right up to people’s doorsteps, but no homes were lost.

Before the fire arrived, Fire Chief Chris Bent and his team of volunteers had cleared away the brush and other flammable materials around the homes. The now-tame blaze burned through the community and back into the forest, where it regained its power and rose again into the crowns for an afternoon run.

Secesh Meadow’s 2007 success demonstrates what fire behavior experts have been saying for more than a decade: clearing brush and other flammables and requiring fireproof roofs will protect houses even in an intense wildfire without risking firefighters’ lives. “I think most people realize we are ringed by a national forest that eventually is going to burn,” Bent said. “We were well prepared.”

Unfortunately, today we spend $1 billion annually to fight fires on public lands, mostly to protect homes, a policy that is ineffective and, in the long run, counter-productive. Federal agencies still put out nearly every fire that starts; of the approximately 80,000 blazes each year, only 265 are generally allowed to burn in what managers call “wildland fire use” blazes.

Fire-suppression costs have risen 6.5 times in a decade to $2.4 billion in 2008, a $500 million increase over 2007. At the same time, funding to make private homes and communities safer has dropped by more than 30 percent since 2001, to less than $80 million in 2009.

Most scientists and fire managers agree that fire is a healthy and necessary part of the forest, and fighting these blazes serves only to build up fuels and boost the size and frequency of catastrophic fires. Despite this, federal agencies continue to attack almost every wildfire, many deep in the woods, and the rising cost of suppression diverts money from preventive measures and forest-restoration efforts like mechanical thinning and prescribed burning.

Billions of taxpayer dollars are spent on what most experts agree is the wrong approach. Funding for logging and mechanical thinning to reduce fuels for ecological health is unavailable, and the people who would do the work are busy fighting fires. The lives of firefighters are put in danger on fires that should be herded, not fought. And homes are left vulnerable. Their fate often decided by wind direction and the availability of federal firefighters to protect private property.

Homes found deep in the forest are more difficult for firefighters to defend, and often do not have the proper amount of clearing around them. (Credit: Karen Wattenmaker)

Since Yellowstone’s signal fires of 1988, the size and scope of wildfires have brought them to the front steps of people in both rural and urban areas. The fire season begins earlier and lasts longer almost every year. Forest scientists like Tom Swetnam of the University of Arizona in Tucson say that since Yellowstone’s blazes, the evidence is building that warmer, drier summers, tied to climate change, have helped make fires bigger and may even turn western forests from carbon sinks into net carbon sources. A team of forest scientists said in the recent issue of Science that deforestation due to fire may contribute one-fifth of the human-caused effects of climate change.

Congress is seeking to address the funding problems, but is only beginning to recognize the role that thinning and a coordinated biomass energy program should play in battling climate change. Meanwhile, communities across the West are coming together behind a new vision of community forestry based on restoring the resilience of forests, not by stopping fire but by learning to live with it. “Our comprehensive vision has focused on those ecological goals of trying to create forest systems that are adapted to wildfire so fire can play something more like its historic role,” said Gerry Gray, American Forests’ vice president for policy.

PROTECTING HOMES, NOT FORESTS

Most members of the public, and even many fire professionals, think of the fire racing through the forest canopy – the intense “crown fire” – as the main threat to homes. But the reality is that most crown fires lose their intensity when they reach the edge of a community. Trees are spread more thinly in residential areas, intersected by roads and driveways and lawns, so the fires tend to drop to the ground, where they burn with less intensity and are easier to manage than the blazing crown fires.

Forest Service fire-behavior researcher Jack Cohen has studied dozens of fires across the nation since the 1990s, and he sees the same behavior every time. Most homes are ignited by flying embers thrown as far as a mile and a half ahead of a crown fire, or ignite when the ground fire reaches brush and trees within 100 feet of the buildings. The homes themselves burn especially hot, and can send off their own embers to start new fires, but often the trees around the burned homes are left with their green canopies intact.

Firefighters from the Black Hills National Forest battle a blaze on the Brengle Farm. (Credit: Gary Chancey, USFS)

That shows Cohen that fires can be fought within the communities, and that raging fires on public lands don’t need to be stopped in the wilderness to protect private property.

Cohen’s research demonstrates that requiring forest homeowners to have a fireproof roof, clear their gutters of pine needles, and remove bushes and trees within 100 feet of a home is far less expensive and more effective for protecting homes than fighting fires on public lands.

Cutting trees to thin the forest around communities – the preferred method of treating federal lands to protect homes – reduces airborne embers that ignite many house fires, but that tactic is still more expensive and less effective than clearing directly around homes. “We have the ability to be compatible with fire,” Cohen said. “But we mostly choose not to be. Our expectations, desires, and perceptions are inconsistent with the natural reality.”

In 2004, $535 million of the federal agencies’ $1 billion firefighting budget went to protecting homes and property, according to a 2006 audit by the US Department of Agriculture’s Office of Inspector General. The federal program, the Inspector General said, “removes incentives for landowners to take responsibility for their own protection and ensure their homes are constructed and landscaped in ways that reduce wildfire risks.”

Thinned stands of Ponderosa pine can resist fire more easily than others. (Credit: Karen Wattenmaker)

Stephen Pyne, a former firefighter and noted fire historian, believes that culture and politics keep us from focusing on the forests themselves: “There is no reason to have houses continue to burn down and to evacuate half a million people,” Pyne said. “If we wanted to, we could fix this.”

How? Replace mandatory evacuations with variants of stay-and-defend, a policy that is practiced in Australia. Reform liability laws so homeowners are forced to take more responsibility for protecting their own homes, Pyne said.

If the need to suppress fires to protect homes and communities were reduced, it would not end the need to suppress in order to manage fires in the wildlands, says Pyne. We can protect working timberlands from fire even as surrounding public lands burn. And in wilderness areas, as well as steep canyon lands too dangerous for firefighters, we can allow fires to burn with minimal management costs.

But in the rest of the forests, we have to make new choices. “The argument for restoration has to be that fire is doing biological work – enhancing ecological goods and services,” Pyne said. “If it is only a tool to reduce or rearrange biomass, then other tools can be used that don’t have the range of collateral damages.” The fire community has not had this kind of debate, Pyne said – choosing instead to fight about whether to suppress fire or restore it.

COSTS OF THE STATUS QUO

Every ground-crew firefighter is outfitted with $415 worth of gloves, goggles, and other equipment. A 20-person crew costs about $8,600 a day to pay and feed. Taxpayers pay $14,000 a day to keep a P-3 Lockheed Orion air tanker on call, according to the National Interagency Fire Center, the Boise-based command center for firefighting all over the country. When these planes take off, they cost an additional $6,300 an hour. Aircraft carrying smokejumpers, water, and fire retardant ate up a full $260 million of the firefighting budget last year.

Historically, the agency has borrowed from the pool of money resulting from timber sales, and paid back into that pool in slow fire years or with additional funding from Congress. As logging on public lands has declined, so has that money, and the Bush administration directed the Forest Service to shift money from other programs to pay for firefighting. That leaves less money for fuel-reduction programs, recreation, research, and other agency tasks. Even when the agencies have money for their other duties, including thinning and community protection, fire suppression overwhelms the system.

The Black Hills fire crew in South Dakota thins trees to contribute to the forest’s natural ability to survive fire. (Credit: Gary Chancey, USFS)

Tom Nichols, chief of the Service’s Division of Fire and Aviation in Boise, says the same is true of manpower. In 2008, the workers who treat ancient sequoia groves with controlled fires were too busy fighting wildfires to maintain their own parks. “We keep sloshing around the country fighting big fires here and there, and we can’t maintain our own programs,” Nichols said.

Congress is trying to address the budget issue. The House voted 412-3 to pass the Forest Land Assistance, Management, and Enhancement Act (FLAME). The bill, sponsored by House Natural Resources Committee Chairman Nick Rahall, a West Virginia Democrat, would set up a dedicated fund for federal firefighting. President Obama proposed a $357 million fund for wildfires. In his stimulus package Obama included $224 million for reducing forest fuels over the next two years. Many of these stimulus thinning projects are tied to development of woody biomass energy plants that could fit the model of community forestry if they were developed at a scale appropriate to restoring forest health and providing quality jobs and economic benefits to local communities.

Both the administration and Congress hope that a separate fund would limit the need for agencies to take money from other Forest Service programs. The bill also requires agencies to provide Congress with a wildfire review, a report containing a cohesive wildfire management strategy and annual reports on the use of the fund. The FLAME Act is an important first step, says Gerry Gray. A longer, landscape approach is necessary, though, to effectively address the wildfire issue in the forests of the American West.

A UNITED CAUSE

The forest wars of the 1980s and early 1990s, which pitted environmentalists against the timber industry, left both forests and communities in poor health. The community forestry movement that grew out of the ashes of that turbulent period offers hope for our forests and the people whose lives are intertwined with them. More recent challenges, such as the huge fires of late, and the growing need to address climate change, have brought former foes to the table with a common goal to make forests more resilient. In Oregon, timber mill owners, workers, and community leaders are sitting down with environmentalists, mapping out plans to thin and log the forests to reduce fuels, restoring ecological health, and creating green jobs.

John Shelk is managing director of Ochoco Lumber Company based in Prineville. His grandfather was an original investor when the company started in 1924, and though Ochoco has operations today as far away as Lithuania, both it and Shelk have deep roots in the Pacific Northwest.

He believes that good sustainable forestry can protect all the values of the forest, as well as the communities. He’s working on developing a community-based program that focuses on small and medium-sized trees, which his mills can turn into products for biomass-fueled electric generation plants. These products can pay for the massive program that will be needed to bring the forest back into sync after nearly a century of fire suppression.

Andy Kerr was one of the leaders of the fight to stop old growth cutting and protect biodiversity in the 1980s. His outspoken advocacy for the northern spotted owl made him enemy number one to the timber workers and loggers of Oregon’s forest communities. Today Kerr is lobbying in Washington to get those same people back in the woods for forest-restoration work, and he’s sitting across the table from Shelk to develop a new consensus that helps both forests and people.

“Andy and I agree on more things than we disagree on, and that would have been incomprehensible to me five years ago,” Shelk said. Kerr says his motivation to get loggers back into the woods is driven by his environmental values. “We should be thinning the forest not merely to reduce the risk of uncharacteristically large wildfires, but also to restore the forest to resilient conditions that allow it to cope with climate change,” Kerr says.

CHANGE OF A DIFFERENT KIND

A swath of the Boise National Forest shows the difference in resilience of treated versus untreated forests. The lower half, treated with prescribed fire years earlier, survived a more recent blaze that decimated the trees around it. (Credit: Karen Wattenmaker)

Tom Swetnam was part of a team of forest scientists who concluded in 2006 that the size and ferocity of the West’s fires are driven by global warming. Climate change has brought earlier springs and warmer summers that make the fire season longer and create unusually fierce fire behavior. It’s happening not only where fire suppression, logging, and livestock grazing have changed the frequency of fires and caused fuel buildup, but also where fire suppression has not changed the forest, like central Idaho’s wilderness and Yellowstone National Park.

Kerr and Shelk’s prescription for Oregon’s forests makes sense to Swetnam: “In places where fuels have accumulated, we need to deal with the fuels by thinning and also using prescribed fire in season,” he said.

Foresters say what we leave in the forest is more important than what we remove, but climate change is complicating even this prescription. Jen Pierce, a Boise State University professor of geosciences, has studied the historical record of the ponderosa pine forests in southern Idaho. In times of drought, even the big trees that usually survive fires were consumed. She concludes that we may not be able to restore the forests in some places where conditions will change which trees survive and flourish. “Our management should focus on how we are going to deal with fire in a warmer and drier future,” she said.

The 2.6-million-acre Boise National Forest is one place that has been aggressively thinned, logged, and prescribe-burned on a landscape level. After huge fires in the early 1990s, forest ecologists mapped out the areas where thinning and logging would be most effective. Leaders of communities like Idaho City worked with representatives of The Wilderness Society and the Forest Service to aggressively thin areas near homes.

The Forest Service laid out timber sales, thinning projects, and prescribed fires in densely overgrown stands of ponderosa known for frequent lightning strikes. More than 53,000 acres were thinned and tens of thousands burned in the spring and late fall. Still, more than 500,000 acres since 2001 burned as wildfires, but most of those fires burned in low and moderate conditions, leaving most of the larger trees alive, said Guy Pence, a fire management officer.

In 2007 more than 300,000 acres burned, but thinning around communities like Warm Lake made them safe. Not every forest benefits from fire like the Boise did, and some communities suffered from two months of solid smoke that hindered tourism and health. Allowing fire to burn is not the answer most communities will give when asked how they want their forest managed.

Increasing thinning programs enough to reduce fire acres will take a dramatic shift in policy. American Forests’ Gray says it’s a learning process that starts with individual projects, grows to forest-wide programs, and eventually must rise to approval on a landscape level. “It often comes back to the need to build trust as we develop larger-scale approaches,” Gray said.

That trust starts in the communities surrounded by the forests. The people who live there are the most directly affected, and the best positioned to treat these forests that are not only local and regional assets, but also national and global resources.

In Secesh Meadows, recognizing that self-protection was possible paved the way for looking at the bigger picture. “I think we have an obligation to take care of our places and ourselves,” Fire Chief Bent said. “We can’t expect the Forest Service to do it for us.”

Rocky Barker has been covering forest issues for 34 years, including 24 in Idaho, where he works for the Idaho Statesman. He is the author of four books including Scorched Earth: How the Fires of Yellowstone Changed America.

This article was published in the Summer 2009 issue of American Forests magazine.