| August 23,
More than 5.5 million acres of land have burned in the U.S. this year. After a background report, Margaret Warner leads a discussion on forest management policy and its role in this year's devastating fire season.
MARGARET WARNER: And for more, we're joined by three experts in forest management and wildfires. Stephen Fitzgerald is an associate professor in the College of Forestry at Oregon State University. Thomas Power is chairman of the Economics Department and Professor of Resource Economics at the University of Montana. And Scott Stephens is an assistant professor of fire sciences in the College of Natural Resources at the University of California at Berkeley.
MARGARET WARNER: Good evening, gentlemen. Welcome.
SCOTT STEPHENS, University of California, Berkeley: Hello.
MARGARET WARNER: Scott Stephens, when Secretary Babbitt says at this point really the fires are uncontrollable, their progress cannot be stopped, is he right, and if so, why?
SCOTT STEPHENS: Well, if you look at the conditions that the fires are burning in today, you have tremendous problems because you have extreme fire behavior. You have a very low moisture contents and fuel, and in those conditions, fires can spot in front of themselves half a mile, three-fourths of a mile. And they're very hazardous. It really is true, in those type of conditions, until the weather changes, there's really not going to be any effectiveness in suppressing them.
|Dozens of simultaneous new fires|
MARGARET WARNER: And what do you mean when you say fires can spot themselves, ahead of themselves?
SCOTT STEPHENS: Well, embers are actually -- burning embers are lofted in front of the flaming area, and they can actually come down in front of the fire, to the side of the fire, and simultaneously, dozens of small fires can occur in front of the flaming mass. It makes it very dangerous to fight them. They're very erratic in their behavior. In that kind of condition, you wouldn't want to put people's lives in jeopardy.
MARGARET WARNER: Stephen Fitzgerald, what would you add to that? What is it about fighting fires in forests that are different than if you had ten city blocks up in flames?
STEPHEN FITZGERALD, Oregon State University: Well, the big thing is that as your fire takes off and moves to the crown, it actually races through there. And the intensity is such that depending on the topography and the embers that were just mentioned, how that feeds back in the fire, it becomes very difficult to control that. And the fire can often make a run and consume tens of thousands of acres in a given run.
MARGARET WARNER: So Thomas Power, explain to us how we got to this point. Why are the fires so horrific this year?
THOMAS POWER, University of Montana: Well, I think the primary explanation simply has to do, as my colleagues have already explained, the unusually dry, hot conditions. This is an unusual year. It's not just that the forests are in unusual condition because of the way they've been managed. This is an unusual year in terms of the weather that simply has created the potential for explosive wildfire. Any human accident or misjudgment, and a good numbers of the fires in the Bitterroot Valley just south of us here in Missoula, for instance, have been human-caused. Any lightning, simply gets fires going. And in a very unpredictable way, they can take off. So it's natural conditions, primarily that explain this year.
MARGARET WARNER: Scott Stephens, then put the forest management piece into the picture, though, as well. In other words, why is it a situation that if you have a really hot, dry summer, it's this horrific a result?
SCOTT STEPHENS: As we just heard, we've had fire suppression policies in this country for last 80, 90 years. Suppress fire, and we know ecosystems are dynamic, are constantly creating fuels, fuels are building up because most of these areas don't get much summer precipitation. So you don't have much decomposition. Then when you get a fire in these types of condition, high fuel loads, high fuel continuity, tremendous resources are lost and lives are put in jeopardy. So it's really past management practices that we have addressed in this country, and we're making some progress to go against. But to get this thing turned around is going to take decades.
|Zealous fire suppression|
| MARGARET WARNER: Stephen Fitzgerald, what caused this policy,
this I guess epitomized by Smoky the Bear where every fire, no matter
how small, was the enemy and had to be stamped out?
STEPHEN FITZGERALD: Well, if you go back to 1910, it's kind of an ironic situation here in Montana, because the large fires from 1910, which consumed hundreds of thousands of acres during that time, we began to take a look, because of all the trees and the sources consumed in those fires, that we began to take on an attitude that fire was harmful, and so we began these policies of putting fires out, fire suppression, as we heard earlier. And that has continued. And then with the advent of Smoky the Bear, that continued in a fairly zealous way -- all with good intentions. However, we've seen a dramatic change in the makeup and structure of fuel, of both dead fuel and living trees. You have to consider them as fuel. And so now we take a look at how fires behave, and they're much more erratic, much more intense, and often much larger in stands that historically did not have this kind of fire behavior.
MARGARET WARNER: And is that, in part, because now the stands are much more dense and the trees are smaller and - less able to resist it?
STEPHEN FITZGERALD: Yeah. What you have is a couple of things. One is a change in the composition of the forest. What you have are trees that have seeded in over time underneath the large old growth trees, and you have basically several canopy layers of tees, often we call that a fire ladder. And when that occurs, the fire can move from the ground or the under-story quite effectively up into the upper or canopy and then move through the stands, move up the slope, and consume trees that historically would have survived a much lower severity fire.
MARGARET WARNER: All right. Thomas Power, now help us understand how logging fits into this. We hear the logging industry saying the problem is it hasn't been logged enough. The environmentalists say, hey, all the big fires are in areas that were logged once. Who's right -- or are both right?
THOMAS POWER: Well, yeah, don't think that you can really engage in very much finger-pointing here. I think the references that have already been made to the 1910 fire, which certainly predated current management practices and predated fire suppression, points out the potential that these forests have for large-scale, catastrophic fire, almost no matter what we do. So we have to begin with a certain amount of humility when we look at that.
In addition, whether timber harvests actually reduce fuel loads depends on how that harvest is carried out. It very important to realize that what's optimal from the point of view of fire control is not the same as what's optimal from the point of view of forest health, since we know that fires are part of forest health. And what optimal for those two isn't necessarily optimal for timber harvests. So that there are some very difficult choices and tradeoffs we have to make. Timber harvests carried out correctly in some situations certainly can help reduce fuel loads. Carried out in other settings, they certainly have been the source of the fuels, which have helped maintain rapid growth of fires here in western Montana. A good number of those fires are burning in areas that were roaded and logged in the past. So it's clear that logging will not solve the problem. It's also clear that we have a problem.
MARGARET WARNER: So Scott Stephens, what are the alternatives now if we don't want to have a repeat of this every hot or dry summer?
SCOTT STEPHENS: Well, I think it has to be a comprehensive program, as the other two speakers have talked about. I do think you have to look at what you are trying to manage our forests for -- the federal forest. You have to look at the desired future conditions and the range of conditions that we're trying to manage for. Once you do that, then you ask yourself, given the initial conditions of our forests, which are very diverse, which methods should be applied to reach the desired condition, and once you get there, how do you maintain them? I think it has to be a combination of prescribed fire treatments, mechanical thinning treatments, and possibly mechanical fire treatments. It is going to take a whole suite of outcomes to get these forests in a trajectory where we can get them more fire safe and more fire prone.
MARGARET WARNER: The prescribed burn is where actually the Forest Service - they set a fire but they try to control it, to thin it out, whereas, the mechanical is something like the Flagstaff experiment, where they go in and without fire, clear out the underbrush.
SCOTT STEPHENS: That's exactly right. You're trying to mechanically -- structurally you're trying to change the forest structure. We heard about some of the many small trees in the under-story. You're trying to remove those mechanically and trying to produce a system that will incorporate fire at lower intensities. But there's some controversy involved with that because we don't have an awful lot of research that tells us if we do it mechanically versus with fire what things might we lose or what things might we gain. But, sill, there's enough information out there right now that I believe we should move forward because we have such a glaring problem on 40 million acres of ground.
|Competition for resources|
MARGARET WARNER: Scott Fitzgerald, what is your assessment of the different alternatives and particularly this idea of the mechanical clearing?
STEPHEN FITZGERALD: Well, I agree actually with that. We have some experiments right now where one of the kinds of stands that everyone is concerned about is old growth, and we conducted experiments
MARGARET WARNER: These are the big old trees.
STEPHEN FITZGERALD: Big old trees that over the last hundred years have been crowded. And what we find is those large trees, the very ones we want to keep around for quite a while, are under stress. We find that their mortality rates are higher. And what we've done is removed much of the under-story trees, the mid-story trees that have crowded around a lot of these fire-resistant Ponderosa Pines. And what we're finding, those trees are pretty happy once that material is removed. It's kind of like having a lot of youngsters taking away a lot of the food or nutrients and water. Water is really critical on a lot of these sites because these are dry, interior forest sites. And so if you're a large tree, you need a lot of water, a lot of nutrients, and if you have a lot of competition, oftentimes what we find are bark beetles find these trees very effectively and kill them, and so oftentimes with old growth, it's an important issue, but sometimes we might love them to death by not doing the right thing. And as Mr. Power mentioned, it has to be the right kind of timber harvesting to maintain those kinds of trees.
MARGARET WARNER: So, Tom Power, back to this or on with this sort of mechanical clearing, which the administration, I think, I gather, is considering trying to take national, do you think that's the big answer?
TOM POWER: I really don't. The cost of it is going to be incredible but what has to be faced is the fact that this sort of mechanical treatment, if it's guided primarily by concerns with forest health, is going to be removing brush; it's going to be removing very small trees, it's going to cost a lot of money and produce no merchantable products.
MARGARET WARNER: You mean... let me just interrupt you you mean because the trees that are being taken out just really aren't commercially viable, in other words, it is sort of not worth it?
TOM POWER: Exactly. And so either it's going to cost a lot of money that taxpayers are going to have provide and the Forest Service is talking about spending close to $1 billion a year over a very long period of time. It just seems unlikely that we can treat 40 million acres in that way. The cost will just be outrageous. In order to cope with that cost, what's usually suggested is that some commercial timber harvest take place at the same time. Then one begins compromising both on the forest health issues, on the fire prevention issues, by mixing up... mixing into the equation what's best for the profitability of commercial timber harvest. And it's at that point that it's not clear, since we're in a confused way trying to pursue several objectives at the same time and doing none of them very well, it's not clear that we'll accomplish any of them. I think we need a very focused effort, first in those areas where human safety and human structures are at risk, and that's where the Forest Service is putting their primary resources right now. I think that that sort of mechanical brush removal and thinning is perfectly appropriate along the urban forest interface.
MARGARET WARNER: Mr. Power, thank you. I'm sorry. I'm going to have to cut you off, but thanks so much. And thank you all three.