In 1988, I was assigned as the branch director of structure protection for a fire in the Lolo National Forest in the Rocky Mountains of Montana. Assigned to the Clear Creek Fire on September 7, I discovered on arrival that it had been started in early June by a lightning strike in an area known as the Bob Marshall Wilderness. The fire was allowed to burn to meet resource objectives for the region and had attained the size of around 60,000 acres just before my arrival.

Two things happened to make this fire stand out that summer. First, it was already quite large when the jet stream surfaced across the western United States and winds of 40 to 60 miles per hour hit this fire as it burned in drought-ravaged stands of lodgepole pine. Second, as I learned during my fire behavior analyst class training that winter, the fire burned 177,000 acres of timber in 18 hours. The fire management officer at the time on the Lolo, Jerry Williams, told us it was a good decision that went bad. Although July is generally one of the wettest months in the Rockies, it had not rained all summer, hence the analogy “it was a good decision that went bad,” which I still support in concept. The fire did not get much recognition because the same wind caused the fires in Yellowstone National Park, which took out significant acreage as well; that grabbed the media’s attention. The sad thing is that this fire burned out of the Rocky Mountains and destroyed livestock and the hay that would feed them the next winter, not to mention a spike camp set up to support the fire.

It’s a great story, but that’s not why I am telling this tale. I’m setting the stage for my topic, “Thin to Win.” What I mean is, we need to do something to our forests in the western United States to minimize the potential for large and damaging fires. As you can imagine, this is not an easy task, but it can be done in some fashion. Looking at history will help us to better understand where we have been and validate what follows.

Realize that the United States Forest Service was developed in the early 1900s, in part because of the large and damaging wildfires that were occurring in the United States. The advent of civilization brought with it fire starts intended to clear land and expedite railroad construction. This, coupled with lightning strikes, resulted in numerous fire starts that burned valuable natural resources. In some years, between 30 and 40 million acres of wildland burned in the lower 48 states! Fires in the Carolinas claimed more than three million acres. The federal government decided to take action and formalized fire suppression. It helped minimize the fires, but there were still the Great Idaho Fires of 1910 that killed more than 70 firefighters and burned millions of acres in the Rocky Mountains, primarily in Idaho and Montana.

At this time, Ranger Ed Pulaski came into fame; he developed a fire tool that was named after him. I am still waiting to find the right tool worthy of the name “Terwilliger.”

The point is that large and damaging fires are part of our culture and nothing new. Through this forest firefighting evolution, we now burn only between four and six million acres each year. Although huge fires are very rare east of the Mississippi River, the fires that we have in the western United States cost more than $1 billion to suppress annually, burn down thousands of homes each year, and destroy property worth billions. Basically, it’s the same problem with different demographics. As some of my staff is fond of saying, “Same circus, different clown,” but I don’t think they are talking about forest fires.

1 Photos courtesy of Mike Jablonski, Eagle Lake Ranger District.


This would be easy if it were as simple as saying, “If we want to eliminate large fires like the Clear Creek from raging down on civilization, we must eliminate the fuel bed (or biomass) that breeds these fires”—that is, eliminate the ground-level debris through removal or prescribed burns and thin out the crowded stands of trees. Unless you have been on the moon, you will understand this is just not likely to happen. Wilderness areas are protected; therefore, fuel bed reduction through mechanical means in these places is out of the question.

Prescribed fire is effective under the right conditions, but perfect conditions are elusive. Sure, there are millions of acres outside protected areas that need attention. Perhaps we need not worry about the large wilderness areas or blocks of remote terrain but instead should focus on areas around civilization, open timber stands within the unrestricted national forests, and on private lands, the protection of which has been deemed beneficial for whatever reason.

The above reasoning can be manipulated so as to preclude or minimize the effects of wildfire under even the most extreme conditions. Fuel bed reduction raises the ire of some environmental groups because any work done to remove fuel in the forests is considered “logging,” which they consider to be just as bad as wildfire. I do not intend to get mired in a dispute about the misinformation some environmental groups are spreading about the effectiveness of forest fuels manipulation in limiting the impact of wildfire, but three fire situations presented below will paint the picture.


For the first two fire stories, you will have to take my word for it. I was assigned as an operations section chief to a fire team in 1992. We responded to a fire in northern California near Burney. I arrived before the team, so I met with the local incident commander and flew over the fire in a helicopter to gather intelligence. The fire was in a stand of timber burning under a strong wind. It was a stand-changing fire running in the canopy, about 800 acres in size. Stand-changing means it was killing all the trees in its path as it passed and was not being selective.

I landed and toured the fire in my vehicle. As I drove to the head of the fire (i.e., the front of the fire, generally the hottest portion, which moves in the direction of fire spread), I had the opportunity to watch this fire spread to a large section of land that had been mechanically treated approximately two years earlier. The large dead ground fuels had been removed as well as the small and sickly trees, leaving a natural pine stand with proper spacing that opened Jeffery pine canopy. As a bonus, a biomass plant in Burney burns forest debris to generate electricity only miles from the treated area.

The flaming front hit this treated zone, and the fire dropped out of the canopy to the ground. The engines quickly backfired a seldom-used two-track dirt road, put out the spot fires in the ground litter up to one- half mile out, and stopped the spread of the fire. If the fuel bed had not been manipulated as it had been, the fire would have spread many miles in heavy timber until the weather was favorable or it hit a natural barrier (i.e., a river, a rockslide, or some natural condition void of forest fuel). The fire’s right flank was in untreated timber; that took us an additional seven days to clean up at a cost of more than $750,000.


In 1994, I responded to the Cottonwood Fire in northern California near my home. I arrived during the initial attack and was assigned to work near the head of the fire. When I got in front of the fire, I found an area in the forest that had been treated for biomass fuel in the same way as the Burney fire. This fire was burning in an extreme fashion; we were trying to anchor the flanks. It hit the biomass-treated area and, once again, carried into crowded, overstocked Jeffery pine and white fir stands and burned around it on all sides and through it in the ground litter. We were able to use this area as a safe refuge and potential midflank anchor point (i.e., an advantageous location, usually a barrier to fire spread, from which to start constructing a fire line; midflank allows line construction in both directions).

The fire burned an additional 17 miles in timber for the next five days, consuming 58,000 acres of timber. To this day, the biomass-treated area is the only green spot in a 58,000-acre area of devastation that is quickly becoming a brush field full of dead and down timber. It is truly a diamond in the rough. There is hope that this “100-acre wood” (as I fondly call it) will prevail over the devastation.

I believe the law of entropy will prevail. The law of entropy is as follows: “If you put a spoonful of wine in a barrel full of sewage, you get sewage. If you put a spoonful of sewage in a barrel full of wine, you get sewage.” The devastation may overwhelm the “100-acre wood,” but in those ruins there are lessons that can be learned; we just need to pay attention.



Now consider the Cone Fire, which burned in the Lassen National Forest in the far reaches of northern California on September 26, 2002. It eventually burned 2,006 acres of timber. The fire is unique in that it burned into several areas of this forest that had been mechanically thinned as described above. From a narrative created by Al Vazquez and Mike Jablonski of the Eagle Lakes Ranger District in Lassen National Forest, the objective of the thinning was to remove smaller, diseased trees while leaving larger, healthier trees. The thinning occurred in 1995 and 1996 with follow-up prescribed burns in 1997 and 1998. This is an experimental forest and gave the U.S. Forest Service the opportunity to study the effects of the fire in an area that has been the subject of a considerable amount of research.

The fire effects are dramatic in that the Cone Fire was a stand-replacing crown fire, which killed most of the trees until it ran into the thinned and underburned areas, where the ground level biomass/debris had been removed through previous prescribed burns. When it reached the thinned units, it became a cool ground fire, allowing crews to contain the fire at those locations. Photo 1 is an aerial photograph of the fire as it burned into a treated zone, Unit 43. Figure 1 indicates the location of the Unit 43 area within the perimeter of the fire, outlined in red. Photo 1 graphically shows the intensity of the crown fire and how it stopped as it burned into Unit 43.

Photos 2 and 3 show the effects of the fire in Unit 41 after it burned through at ground level. In Unit 41, the biomass was thinned in 1996, and the area was underburned in 1997. Photo 2 shows the damage the stand-replacing fire caused in untreated stands of timber; the tree mortality rate in such a situation is very close to 100 percent.

However, when the crown fire burned into a treated area, it changed to a low-intensity ground fire, consuming the small forest floor litter but doing little or no damage to the existing crowns. It requires ladder fuels or extensive heat to drive the fire into the crowns. When the ground fuel is removed, there are no ladder fuels. Also, the crowns must be relatively close together to carry a crown fire. When there is crown spacing, the fire does not carry from tree to tree. This wildfire acted as a prescribed fire and was a success for ground fire personnel.

Fires burning into treated areas in which the fuelbed has been removed burn at a much lower intensity than those in untreated forests. The results in these pictures cannot be denied. The success we had suppressing the head of the Burney Fire and the lack of mortality in the “100-acre wood” in the Cottonwood Fire are undeniable and deserve recognition. It is important to understand these fires were burning under extreme conditions; suppression opportunities were minimal. It does not take long to draw some conclusions about structure survivability in timber fuel types as well with this type of treatment. There are some benefits derived from this mechanical thinning that have not been discussed; as a fire officer, I find them very powerful.

Primarily, fighting fire in mechanically treated forest is a clear benefit for firefighter safety. It is undeniably safer to fight fire in treated areas because of the reduced intensity, the lack of snags, and the safe refuge such an area provides during times of extreme activity. Second, the cost of firefighting is greatly reduced. The Cone Fire cost $3,462,204 to suppress, since it burned primarily in untreated timbered stands. The cost to put out the fire was $1,726 per acre. The cost of mechanically treating the affected units with a timber sale and underburning was approximately $204.33 per acre.

There is no easy way to make the forests of the western United States fireproof. In reality, we probably don’t want that because stand-changing fires are natural, as the above history lesson indicates, and they also offer us lessons from which we must learn.

But as our population grows, we need to protect our renewable resources in timber and range. It is not acceptable to import more than 75 percent of the timber we use when it is here rotting on the stump. It is not acceptable to have fire burn into areas we would like to protect simply because a few misinformed, biased groups have convinced uninformed United States administrations that thinning activities in the forested lands are bad. As the misinformation spreads, I am reminded of a quote by Larry McMurtry, author of Lonesome Dove, “Incompetents invariably make trouble for people other than themselves.” There is a happy medium and, through true stories, we will develop an understanding of what needs to be done. Thinned forests are healthy; healthy forests are productive; and, most importantly, healthy forests are safe for firefighters and civilians. That is simply a good thing.

MICHAEL S. TERWILLIGER is chief of the Truckee (CA) Fire District. He began his career in 1972 with the California Department of Forestry, where he served for 24 years in the following assignments: division chief of operations (South) in the Nevada-Yuba-Placer Ranger Unit and operations section chief and planning section chief on a Type I team from 1988 to 1996. He is a certified fire behavior analyst. Terwilliger was incident commander for the Sierra Front Wildfire Cooperators Team, which operates along the eastern California/Nevada border. He also instructs operations section chiefs, division group supervisors, and strike team leaders.

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