In the seasonally-dry climate of the western states, forest and brush fires are as much a part of summer and autumn as hiking and picnicking. Just a few weeks ago, while in Tomales Bay, California, I watched a grass fire engulf an entire hillside in less than ten minutes, followed by an air show of flame-retardant-dropping planes and water-scooping helicopters. Though the burn was small, oftentimes, forest fires are huge events, causing billions of dollars in destruction and massive resource consumption.
Though fires are less of an “if” and more of a “when” in many parts of the country and world, just how to prevent their damage—or whether they damage at all—is a debate that pits environmentalists, loggers, the government, and land managers against each other. And at the very center of the complex argument is the simplest part of the forest—the tree.
To Cut or Not to Cut?
With a lack of summer rain, heat waves, periodic lightning, strong winds, and large swaths of uninterrupted forests, western states like California, Oregon, Texas, Nevada, and Montana, among others, reliably face the possibility of seasonal fires. Global warming is exacerbating some of these risk factors, including less rain and higher temperatures in some states. More recently, the bark beetle has been decimating millions of acres of pines from Canada to Mexico. Dead trees are at greater risk for forest fires, as their dry, kindle-like stands can easily go up in flames.
Dry trees present just one source of fuel for hungry fires that move rapidly over acreage; healthy trees and thick underbrush are another source. That’s why tree-thinning and underbrush clean-up or burning is often done to prevent forest fires, especially in the high risk urban-wildland areas, where homes and towns abut dense forests. Not too many people argue with cleaning up underbrush, but tree-thinning can meet resistance with some environmentalists, who often see it as a carte blanche for intensive logging. For instance, when the Bush Administration proposed their Healthy Forest Initiative in 2002, many saw it as a return to the extensive deforestation that occurred prior to the 1980s. With logging companies behind thinning, medium and large diameter trees are cut in addition to underbrush, and then sold on the market. There are also some questions as to whether thinning actually helps to prevent the catastrophic fires that hit the west almost every year.
Burn, Baby, Burn
Balancing the yin and yang of ecology and safety is even more complex when it comes to managing fires, not all of which are detrimental. Fires can actually be good for a forest and suppressing every one that arises can be overkill. According to the National Fire Plan’s Web site, “Decades of efforts directed at extinguishing every fire that burned on public lands have disrupted the natural fire regimes that once existed.”
Fires are a natural part of a forest’s growth. Some types of trees need fire for their health, with pinecones that remain dormant until a fire melts the resin inside them, freeing the seeds for distribution. Fires also help consume the dead and decaying underbrush and can help regenerate some types of forests. Some species of trees, like aspens, are pioneer species that grow rapidly in fire-touched areas.
Although forest fires can release large amounts of carbon dioxide and methane—two greenhouse gases—into the environment, the new growth that follows a fire can also capture large amounts of carbon, effectively cleaning the air and producing oxygen.
Leave It Be?
Yet letting a large fire burn seems counterintuitive to most people’s idea of fire safety. Figuring out where to thin and where to let fires roam is crucial, as is protecting areas where people and property are at risk of damage. While stimulus money is flowing for fuel reduction projects, other communities are struggling to fund fire prevention.
A recent study published in the Proceedings of the National Academy of Sciences found that federally funded land management agencies hadn’t adequately reduced the risk of fire in wildland-urban interfaces. Part of the problem stems from the patchwork type of land ownership in these communities, some private, some public.
Not everything comes down to a let-it-be or log-it approach, however. The Nature Conservancy, an environmental group, owns an experimental property in the Pacific Northwest where they are researching whether thinning out sections of a cramped forest—and selling the cut—can help restore it what it was like as an old-growth forest. Though they aren’t studying fire per se, they will be able to study all aspects of the thinned sections versus unthinned sections, perhaps resulting in insight over whether thinning can help in fire maintenance.
The National Interagency Fire Center four-month fire outlook predicted that in June through October of 2009 there would be a more active fire season in parts of Washington and California, while other fire prone states should see around average or below fire activity. I’m not sure if this helps ease fears or start them. Because whether the fire strikes a thick forest or thin, or causes damage or creates new growth, it’s really all up to the whim of the flames.