TOPICS > Science

Western Wildfires

August 17, 2001 at 12:00 AM EDT

RAY SUAREZ: We get three views from: Lyle Laverty, the U.S. Forest Service’s national fire plan coordinator; Michelle Ackermann, the wildfire policy coordinator at the Wilderness Society, an environmental group; and Holly Fretwell, research associate at the Political Economy Research Center, which promotes free market approaches to environmental problems.

Lyle Laverty, maybe we can start with an overview of the fire lines today and get an idea of how things went in battling these big blazes.

LYLE LAVERTY: Ray, we’ve had yesterday a little over 100,000 acres of new fires that burned. To date we are approximately 2.6-2.7 million acres of fire that have burned already. And, as you’ve discussed, the weather is a critical factor for us in terms of how successful the crews are going to be. We had some successes yesterday in containing some of the fires and we’re still pushing and evacuating some communities.

RAY SUAREZ: So the weather doesn’t look like it is about to give you any relief either for the rest of today or over the weekend?

LYLE LAVERTY: There’s actually red flag warnings in parts of the eastern part of the Great Basin up in Montana. And so it is still a challenge with the weather.

RAY SUAREZ: What’s that, a red flag warning?

LYLE LAVERTY: Just indicates that humidity is low and winds are high and the potential is extremely great in terms of extreme fire behavior.

RAY SUAREZ: Did you start off sort of already under threat during this summer season because of the light rains over the winter and early spring?

LYLE LAVERTY: Ray, we had some early warnings this spring that we were going to be in drought conditions, particularly in the Northwest and the upper Great Basin part of the country. So we had those indications early on.

RAY SUAREZ: Holly Fretwell, how should we understand what’s going on out there in the various forests today — a natural part of what happens in a forest, or as something we have to, as a country, manage?

HOLLY FRETWELL: Well absolutely it is a natural part of our forests, a natural part of the ecosystem. However, we have changed the ecological structure of our forests, largely because of our previous management and fire suppression. We’ve suppressed fires for nearly a century. Fires that have historical fire patterns of five to twenty-five years have really changed in ecological structure. And without a doubt, we’ve changed the intensity in the wildfire situation

RAY SUAREZ: So what do we do? Do we change direction? How do we undo what you seem to be implying is what created this problem in the first place?

HOLLY FRETWELL: Well, we definitely need to have active management and we need to have more localized management. Our federal lands policy tends to be very much command and control from the center, from Washington, DC. We allow for some local input, but we often don’t continue through the processes. Quincy library groups, projects in Flagstaff where they’ve coordinated groups of forest people, universities, scientists, locals, local agencies, environmental groups, they’ve all agreed on how to restore some of the areas surrounding their towns, yet we can still have one group that opposes the situation and suddenly they’ll take it to appeals, and we can no longer do the restorative processes that were intended by this collaboration group. So we get this political-type management instead of resource management that we really need.

RAY SUAREZ: Michelle Ackermann, is that really the problem, a conflict between local management and management from Washington?

MICHELLE ACKERMANN: Well, I think that the ten-year strategy that was referenced in the opening that really has a lot of those collaborative aspects is going to, if it is implemented correctly and if it’s implemented strongly, I think that it will go a long way toward making sure that the people that need to be at the able are at the table for those local collaborative processes. But one of the things that we really need to make sure we’re doing is that we’re making really wise decisions with the resources that we have. We really need to be prioritizing communities that are at risk and making sure that our top priority is saving homes and lives and not just while the fires are burning but the other nine months of the year as well, making sure our resources are going there, right to the areas that are around communities that are situated near or in our forests and there are more and more of those every year and making sure we are taking the steps we know how to take, the commonsense steps to make sure the communities are protected and ready for what Holly rightly described as a natural process, which is fire in forests.

RAY SUAREZ: You said saving homes and lives; you didn’t say saving forests. When forests burn and there are no homes and lives in jeopardy, should they just be allowed to burn?

MICHELLE ACKERMANN: Well, in some cases, yes. Fire is a natural healthy part of a natural ecosystem. It plays an important role in western forests. It cleanses the forests; it creates habitat and food for animals such as elk. In fact, some trees can’t reproduce without the heat of a wildfire to break open the cones and release their seed. So, yeah, there are places where we believe fires should be allowed to burn naturally.

RAY SUAREZ: Lyle Laverty, what is the Forest Service doing in the off season, away from the height of the fire season to try to make these fires less dangerous and less hard to contain?

LYLE LAVERTY: Well, Ray, it’s rather interest can question because we started fire season in Florida January 1. We’ve been fighting fires in different parts of the country. But in terms of what are we doing in– to reduce the threat or the risk, we’re working with communities as Michelle and Holly both talked about, to begin to design projects that we can, in fact, implement on the ground that will reduce the risk of fire, catastrophic fire, to some of the communities. We just published in the Federal Register a list of about 10,000 communities that have been identified by the governors and the state foresters around the country that are in harm’s way because of fuel conditions. From this list of communities, we’ll be working with the communities, with the governors, to identify projects that we can begin implementing on the ground to reduce those risks. In addition, the state foresters have identified another 10,000 communities that are not in the vicinity of federal lands, but are at some risk of harm’s way because of fuel conditions across the country. It’s a national problem; it’s not just a western issue.

RAY SUAREZ: Well, Holly Fretwell, if your vision of greater local control and greater collaboration was actually seen at forest level, would the forests look any different? How would they be managed differently?

HOLLY FRETWELL: Well, that depends on what the community wants. I guess my biggest point here is that just throwing more money into the pot to try to control this is not going to solve the problem. We really need to allow the local communities that have already created some plans and processes to take care of their forests, to go through with those. Even, we have all– all it takes is one zero-cut group to come in and appeal the process and they can’t do anything. The restoration is done, all their planning is over. We need to allow the consensus and not make it, force it to be unanimous. There really is some processes that are occurring that have some great restorative measures within them but they’re not allowed to continue because of the appeals process, because of the way the legislation for it is set up.

RAY SUAREZ: You talk about one zero cut group. I guess you mean people who would not want us to touch the forests at all?

HOLLY FRETWELL: That’s right. That’s right. There’s a lot of different groups that say we shouldn’t be in there harvesting timber, and that may be an agenda and in some forests may have some logical and rational approach to it. It depends on the forest. That’s again why we need to be looking at a local level. However, all it takes is one of these groups to take a logical restorative process, they appeal it and the process can no longer go on, and it becomes extremely costly and we leave the forest in the state of — unhealthy state that it is now throughout the time they’re trying to go through the legal process.

RAY SUAREZ: Well, Michelle Ackermann, would a forest that we allowed to just stand there and be managed by fire, look very different from a forest that we actively manage and restrict cutting on and do some of the things is that the you… That you just heard holly Fretwell talking about?

MICHELLE ACKERMANN: Well, it entirely depends on the forest. We have 192 million acres of national forest land….

RAY SUAREZ: But the ones that are burning this week in the western United States, largely pine forests — would they look very different?

MICHELLE ACKERMANN: You know, again, it depends on the forest. It’s interesting to hear, you know, Lyle and Holly talk about kind of the historical conditions when the forests were not as dense. But one of the most famous fire years that we’ve had in the last century was in 1910. That was called the big Blow-Up and three million acres burned in Idaho and Montana. And, you know, that’s a half million acres more or so than have burned so far this year. So, you know, even — as Holly pointed out before, it is a natural process and it’s a cyclical process. I think the most important thing we can do right now is make sure that our priorities are, our resources are prioritized towards communities.

I think that we also need to be careful –some of the restorative processes that Holly was referring to, the thinning and logging — we need to be really sure that thinning and removing some of the small saplings or twigs or branches from the areas around the communities, that thinning and doing the things does not become a code word for logging or a code word for business as usual. Going out into remote forests far from communities and continuing to cut down trees is not going to reduce fire risks to communities. And that’s something that government studies have shown. It’s something that is pretty clear. So we need to make sure that we’re targeting resources where they had need to go to protecting homes and lives and not toward logging remote forests and we’re really making the decisions about the resources based on the ecological health of the forests, based on those collaborative processes and mostly based on the priority of protecting homes and lives in the event of wildfire.

RAY SUAREZ: And, Lyle Laverty, quickly before we close, are we actually having less eventful summer than we did last year? I mean, not to minimize the suffering and the danger that’s going on right now, but are we actually well ahead of where we were last year?

LYLE LAVERTY: No, we’re not, Ray. In fact one of the– last year about this time we had about 4.5 million acres that already were burned. This year we’re at just about 2.5 million. We had different weather conditions in different parts of the country. On the other side, with the funds that the Congress provided, we’ve been able to add an additional 5,000 firefighters over the year we had last year.

So the resources that we have available this year have, in fact, helped us to contain some of these fires and keep them relatively small rather than losing them and ending up with large conflagrations. So we’re behind them in terms of acres burned, which is a real blessing, but I think there is a number of factors that contribute to that but in part I think it is because we have the additional resource to take care of that.

RAY SUAREZ: Guests, thank you for joining me.