As reluctant as I am to throw my hat into the burning ring of fire debates that began raging almost as soon as Bitterrooters began fleeing their hillside homes and ranches, like the fires themselves, politicization of this issue threatens to reach record proportions. Last week hit a new low when Gov. Marc Racicot, upon visiting Missoula to meet with Forest Service Chief Mike Dombeck, said that all decisions about future logging and reforestation of burned public lands should be “made by science and science alone.”
This from a governor who, for the last two months, has been pointing an accusatory finger at the Clinton Administration for allegedly putting the drip-torch to the Rocky Mountain West. Meanwhile, Racicot remained silent all winter and spring as budget cuts reduced the first-strike response capabilities of the Forest Service’s Northern Region by as much as 25 percent, just as regional land managers, threatened by lower-than-average snows and rainfalls and shortchanged of their prescribed burn season, were already predicting a nasty fire season.
OK, so everyone but the Governor realizes that precipitation patterns and lightning strikes don’t have a whit to do with whose tush is planted in the Oval Office. That said, the debate over which lands have burned and why is likely to occupy editorial pages for months—if not years—to come.
Among the first to weigh in with a scientific assessment of the 2000 fire season is the Tucson, Ariz.-based Pacific Biodiversity Institute, a nonprofit research organization that primarily focuses on the biology of endangered species and their habitats. Last week, the group issued a report that refutes the claims that logging and road-building could have prevented or reduced the severity of this year’s wildfire season. Instead, the report finds that the biggest fires of 2000 occurred primarily in roaded areas rather than roadless ones, in areas that had been logged rather than protected wilderness areas.
The report, produced in cooperation with Defenders of Wildlife, Northwest Ecosystem Alliance and the Pacific Rivers Council, used satellite imaging, federal fire data and computer mapping systems to look at 12 of the nation’s largest fires based on the overall acreage burned, containment costs and the availability of data. Researchers then asked what conditions contributed to their severity, whether thinning or prescribed burns would have prevented those fires, and what could be done to prevent similar situations from occurring in the future.
The study, which analyzed the fire season from July 4 through Aug. 22, found that 31 percent of the acreage burned occurred on national forest land and 38 percent of the burned acreage occurred in roadless or wilderness areas. In fact, most of the largest fires did not originate in, nor remained confined to, roadless areas.
“Since more logged areas burned than unlogged areas, our conclusion is that logging is part of the problem. It’s not the solution to forest fires,” says Kieran Suckling, science and policy director for the Center for Biological Diversity, who helped prepare the report.
For example, among the fires analyzed was the Valley/Skalkaho Fire Complex in the Bitterroot National Forest, currently the largest fire complex in the United States. This fire, which has already cost more than $14.2 million to contain, began in a roaded area managed for grazing and timber production by the Forest Service and the Darby Lumber Company. As of Aug. 21, 74 percent of the burn had occurred in roaded and developed areas.
As Suckling notes, it’s important to distinguish between the source of ignition for a fire and where the fire will continue to burn. Obviously, lightning is a random phenomenon, as likely to strike in a roadless area as a logged one. But this latest study, Suckling says, confirms what years of wildfire research have shown; namely, that more of the biggest fires start as the result of human activity and continue burning in roaded areas where large, fire-resistant trees have already been harvested.
Not surprisingly, this latest report also refutes Racicot’s claims that federal land management policies are to blame for the 2000 fire season, since most of the areas that burned were not even on federal land. In fact, 36 percent of the land that burned this season was not forestland at all, but grasslands, juniper woodlands and other non-forest areas where forest thinning is a non-issue.
It is worth noting that data going back to 1916 on the total acres burned each year, 2000 has been a below-average burn year. While the intensity of the 2000 fires will be more difficult to measure, Suckling emphasizes that as much of the problem lies not in the forests themselves, but with human encroachment upon them.
“The fires aren’t worse this year. But the number of houses in the forests has grown, and it’s making the human tragedy worse,” says Suckling. “But you can’t tell someone whose house burned down that this was a below average fire year. That doesn’t mean anything to them. Whether fires shrink or grow in the future, the tragedy is going to constantly grow if we constantly put more homes into the forest.”
Instead, what’s needed, says Suckling, are scientifically sound restoration projects that restore the forest’s natural resistance to fire. In other words, land management decisions driven by science, not politics.