TOPICS > Science

Fire Fight

July 1, 2002 at 12:00 AM EDT


BETTY ANN BOWSER: Mother Nature is driving wildfires in the West with such ferocity that firefighters compare them to the perfect storm — they even create their own tornadoes and weather systems.

This is how Rick Cables of the U.S. Forest Service describes them: RICK CABLES, Regional Forester, USDA Forest Service: We can’t get in front of the fire, can’t suppress it effectively and it burns hot; it gets up into the crowns of the trees and burns from tree to tree. And you have these unbelievable rates of spread when the fire gets going and wind gets behind it. So that’s where we’re getting what we call catastrophic wildfires — wildfires that are not normal, they’re not natural. BETTY ANN BOWSER: Not normal, not natural because this is a new breed of unpredictable forest fire that has only recently been documented. Forest Service ecologist Merrill Kauffman has been studying this new kind of fire since 1996 when the first one appeared at Buffalo Creek in Colorado. MERRILL KAUFFMAN, Ecologist, USDA Forest Service: I would not be at all surprised if we had such a fire to hear that hundreds of people’s lives will be lost in those kinds of fires and along with a lot of firefighters and law enforcement people trying to get those people out and to protect them and so forth. There’s simply– these fires move so fast, so explosively that people hardly have time to understand that there’s a bad fire and by that time their point of egress may be lost, they may be overrun by fire.

BETTY ANN BOWSER: Fed by record drought conditions in the West, this fire south of Denver spread 17 miles in six hours. The Rodeo Fire in Arizona doubled in size in one day. They spread so fast because the forest’s that are providing the fuel are drier, denser, thicker than they’ve been in 100 years — forests that grew out of federal government policy. It started with the big blow up. On August 20th 1910 hurricane force winds blew fires through Idaho and Montana destroying three million acres and killing 87 people in less than two days. Americans were so frightened by the fires that the U.S. Forest Service made its primary mission fire suppression and eventually its poster boy, Smokey Bear. SMOKEY THE BEAR: Remember, only you can prevent forest fires.

REP. MARK UDALL: Fire is a part of these ecosystems in the West. BETTY ANN BOWSER: Congressman Mark Udall represents one of the most fire-prone areas in Colorado. REP. MARK UDALL: Smokey the Bear was such an icon for all of us that we couldn’t see what was really occurring. We got to this situation because we suppressed fire for 100 years. We’re in the midst of a drought cycle that’s probably the most severe in at least 100 years and we’ve had a real pattern of growth in Colorado where a lot of people have moved here; we’ve doubled our population in the last 20 years from about two million to over four million. And a lot of those people are living in this so-called red zone area where forests are more prone to catastrophic fire particularly if you suppress fuel loads and you have a dry climatic pattern. BETTY ANN BOWSER: Through all those years of fire suppression, thousands of acres of acres of new forest were able to grow in the mid elevation areas of the mountains with trees that were not as fire resistant. The government says there are 221 million acres of tinderbox forest land like this in the mountain states that need to be thinned out by cutting down trees and using fire to fight fire with controlled burns.

Dr. Wayne Shepard of the Forest Service took the NewsHour to an area of forest that was overrun in the recent Hayman Fire south of Denver.

DR. WAYNE SHEPARD: Before the fire reached here about a 1/2 mile it was a crown fire. It was really cooking — coming down the hill destroying all the trees in its path. When it hit the thinned area west of here the wind shifted it allowed the fire to drop in under the trees and burn on the forest floor.

BETTY ANN BOWSER: Almost to lay down?

DR. WAYNE SHEPARD: It laid down. That’s the term the firefighters use. It laid down and it burned under the forest here, not in the crowns of the trees. And so as we look back through here you see a lot of green — even small trees — a lot of those trees will survive and almost all of the large trees will survive in this area.

BETTY ANN BOWSER: The Hayman Fire almost stopped in its tracks in another part of the forest where the government had thinned the trees with a controversial 8,000 acre deliberate or prescribed burn last year. But it’s an imperfect science. In another section of the forest that was treated and thinned out, all of the trees were destroyed. DR. WAYNE SHEPARD: Thinning a forest doesn’t work in all situations. You know, that’s not the cure-all if you will to preventing wildfires. It certainly probably contributes to the lessening effect of wildfires. There are many other factors involved: The climate, the weather, the direction the wind was blowing.

BETTY ANN BOWSER: Is it sort of like improving your chances at the roulette table in Las Vegas?

DR. WAYNE SHEPARD: I would say so. Yes. BETTY ANN BOWSER: The Forest Service has argued for fuel reduction in recent years, saying it’s the best alternative, given the catastrophic nature of today’s fires. But the government has had trouble getting programs off the ground.

Congressman Scott McInnis, who represents the area where the three Colorado fires are still burning, blames environmental groups for slowing the process down. REP. SCOTT McINNIS: They obstruct us at every point in an attempt to try and thin a forest. They interpret thinning a forest as logging a forest. The Forest Service has to deal with litigation every day of the week. These national organizations like the National Sierra Club, the Aspen Wilderness Workshop kind of people, they throw these lawsuits at them you know right hand over the left hand and so the Forest Service has to take a lot of resources to defend themselves in litigation. BETTY ANN BOWSER: Even the Forest Service’s top brass admit the agency suffers from analysis paralysis, often spending months and millions of dollars defending their programs before any action is taken against them.

RICK CABLES: In the Forest Service our people try to design projects — we call them bullet proof or they will stand up to the scrutiny of the appeal process in the courts. So we build documentation that’s very onerous, it’s expensive; it’s voluminous. We create these documents that will sustain themselves and that we can survive a court challenge or an appeal. All that is time, energy, that’s directed away from getting the work done on the ground.

BETTY ANN BOWSER: Greg Aplet of the Wilderness Society says very few Forest Service thinning programs have been opposed by environmental groups. He cited a 1999 Government Accounting Office report based on Forest Service data. GREG APLET: The Forest Service reported that they were implementing 1,671 fuel reduction projects. Out of that 1,600, 20 had been appealed not just by environmentalists but also by industry interests and by individuals an so forth. But approximately 1 percent of those fuel reduction projects had been appealed by anyone. And of the those the majority, the issues had been resolved and the project was proceeding. So the allegation just doesn’t hold water.

BETTY ANN BOWSER: And Sierra Club Regional Director Steve Smith says his organization has been unfairly portrayed as obstructionist. STEVE SMITH: The Sierra Club has not appealed or objected to a fuels reduction project that’s close to where people live around communities, around individual homes or clusters of homes. We have indeed objected to misdirection of that fuels reduction money when it’s applied farther into backcountry or into roadless areas where it’s not going to have as strong an effect on that fire intensity reduction as it can have if you do it where people live. BETTY ANN BOWSER: And that’s part of the problem — more and more people moving into high risk fire areas, complicating an already complex problem that has only long term solutions. RICK CABLES: You can’t snap your fingers and fix 100 years of fire suppression policies overnight. It’s going to take time to get the forest back into the kind of shape and I don’t believe we’d ever treat every acre. But strategically figuring out where we want to treat these acres, where the risks and the value’s the highest — that the public really cares about, if we roll up our sleeves and get after it with public support, which is crucial, yes, I think we can make a tremendous amount of progress over the next decade and decades to come.

BETTY ANN BOWSER: As the policy debate continues, so does the risk. The Forest Service estimates right now in Colorado alone conditions are ripe for 40 more big, destructive and potentially deadly fires this year.

JIM LEHRER: Betty Ann’s second report will examine the impact of building homes in the forests.