BY BOBBY HALTON
A good friend of mine and a fire zone management specialist from the state of Montana said in 1984, “Fire is a fundamental part of the forest ecosystem, but Smokey™ Bear and Bambi and all that have created this idea that fire is bad.” What E.M. “Sonny” Stiger, author of The Sleeping Giant Awakens, was referring to is the fact that the U.S. Forest Service has, since 1910, used fire suppression campaigns featuring Smokey™ Bear and Bambi to educate the public on the need to help stop forest fires. The goal of the fire service for many decades was to eliminate fire. Tragically, it was incredibly effective in its goal. Unfortunately, fire is a part of nature, and nature has its own laws and its own ways of making things right.
The law of unintended consequences is this: “Actions of people and especially of government and government agencies always have effects that are unanticipated or unintended.” We have all heard the old adage that the road to hell is paved with good intentions. People do things with the best of intentions, never dreaming that their goal might be exactly the wrong thing in the long run. We see this quite often as we look back in history. Today, wildland firefighters are experiencing a form of hell on earth as they battle against incredible wildfires across the Midwest, Northwest, and Southwest.
In 2011, 73,484 national fires scorched 8.7 million acres. With the dramatic fires we have experienced so far this year and the anticipation of above-normal temperatures across most of the southern two-thirds of the country from July to September and below-average rainfall for much of the country, it is expected that we will far surpass last year’s devastating numbers. These wildfires were made much more volatile and the fire behavior much more extreme by the unintended consequences of the good intentions of foresters and citizens of a hundred years ago.
It’s important that firefighters, whether dedicated to the wildland or potentially responsible for working in a wildland interface, understand how we got where we are today in terms of fuel loads, preparedness, and fire behavior. When the fire service first began its campaign to end fire in our state and national forests, it was unaware of what the impact of its actions would be on the health of the forests. As well-intentioned ecologists fought against logging, which admittedly had some negative ecological impacts, the forests suffered anyway. Now, armed with scores of years of experience, we can clearly see the devastating effects of this misguided government policy. And we now know that well-managed logging operations do minimal ecological damage and actually help improve the health of the forest.
For firefighters, it’s important to recognize the different vegetation zones: the ponderosa pine zone, the Douglas fir zone, the lodgepole pine zone, and the spruce fir zone. Each has been impacted; however, particularly hard hit was the ponderosa pine zone, where most of our wildland interface structures are constructed. According to Forest Service statistics, almost 17 million homes are in what we call the “wildland/urban interface.” This interface within the ponderosa pine zone is the most diseased and damaged part, largely because of the actions of man. In nature, fire would occur in these ponderosa pine forests approximately every five to 10 years and would involve low-intensity surface fires. The mature ponderosa pine with its thick bark and high moisture content is very adept at surviving these low-intensity fires. Immature and small seedlings would be destroyed in these low-intensity fires, keeping the population in the ponderosa zone well spread out and healthy.
Without fire, ponderosa seedlings grew thick and dense; some say this is where the expression “as thick as the hair on the dog’s back” comes from. Unfortunately, in this thick growth, competition for limited moisture and nutrients makes the trees extremely susceptible to drought, disease, and bug infestations. Once these diseased and bug-infested conditions exist, abnormal crown fires will occur and devastate a ponderosa pine forest. Tragically, it takes more than 100 years for a ponderosa pine forest to recover.
The situation is exacerbated by the presence of several bug infestations in the ponderosa pine community. The mountain pine beetle infestation has claimed millions of acres and has contributed dramatically to the increase in extreme fire behavior we are seeing today. This bug is attracted to distressed ponderosa pine trees. A lack of thinning by the natural occurrence of fire, well-intentioned overprotection, the wildland urban interface, and prolonged drought conditions have combined as never before and primed the forest for disaster. The same is occurring in the spruce fir zone with the spruce budworm and in the lodgepole zone with the mountain pine beetle.
Contributing to this impending disaster are today’s economic decisions. In 2002, the federal government had a fleet of 44 firefighting planes; now, there are only nine for the entire country. In 2011, the National Forest Service canceled a key federal contract with an air tanker supplier.
Today, the fire service must apply its skills and its emphasis on fire prevention in the wildland interface and on wildland fire service management in general. Since the 1980s, the fire service has embraced prescribed burns as a way to improve the health of the forests. We must continue these efforts, and we must support mechanically thinning and pruning the ponderosa pine forests and clear-cutting small patches of lodgepole pine forests, just as would happen if we allowed fire to take its natural course. We must always be mindful that we should not mess with Mother Nature.