They appear, in satellite photos, as angry wounds in the flesh of the California coastline.
In late October, 2003, 11 wildfires erupted across southern California, east of Los
Angeles, in the Simi valley, adjacent to San Diego, and at the border with Mexico. The
Cedar fire, an 18-mile swath of flames, destroyed the community of Cuyamaca. Overall,
at least 700,000 acres burnt across California, resulting in 16 deaths and destroying some
1,600 homes. Encountering a landscape as devastated as any in his dystopian, sci-fi movies, governor-elect Arnold Schwarzenegger joined with outgoing governor Gray Davis in
tours of the afflicted areas. Even after ten thousand firefighters had succeeded in
quenching the flames, experts predicted future erosion, due to the destruction of
vegetation, as well as mudslides and flooding.
Fires in Southern California|
What had happened? The major immediate cause was heavy winds surging from interior
deserts. However, although it took more than a bit of synergy to cause all these fires to
appear at once, environmental conditions had long been accumulating that made disaster
virtually inevitable. High fuel loads in our forests had spurred the worst fire seasons in
memory in the years 2000 and 2002. Prior to California's October wave of fires, 2003
had been a relatively quiet year, yet one suffused with accidents waiting to happen. Tree
diseases, insect infestations, drought, and unstable weather conditions all contribute to the
declining health of our national forests that, in some cases, approach being flammable
A Fiery History
In 1910 wildfires burned through nearly 5 million acres of land in Montana and Idaho,
precipitating a new era in fire protection, as explained in The Congressional Research
Service (CRS) Issue Brief for Congress Forest Fire Protection (December
2000). The policy was to control
all fires as soon as possible. By 1926 the Forest Service had developed a policy of
extinguishing all fires before they reached ten acres in size. It was not even considered
that, over time, increased fuel loads could lead to enormous, devastating fires.
By the 1970s the wisdom of this policy was being questioned. Rather than an
unmitigated evil to be destroyed as soon as possible, the ecological community was
coming to view fire as part of a natural cycle, cleansing and refurbishing America's
forests. Fire may destroy unwanted infestations, restore habitats, and provide conditions
for new vegetation to thrive. The major method for prompting these conditions has been
prescribed fires, defined in the CRS Report Forest Ecosystem Health: An Overview (February
2001) as "using fire under prescribed weather and fuel conditions to reduce fuel loads."
Prescribed fires remained the singular means of controlling fuel load growth until at least
1988, when an out-of-control prescribed fire contributed to a larger chain of wildfires in
Yellowstone National Park. Prescribed fires were then temporarily banned, as
environmental managers searched for a comprehensive strategy to balance the positive
effects of fires with immediate safety concerns. Nevertheless, the fuel load, and the
danger it brings, appears to have been rising steadily ever since, with the number of bad
fire seasons increasing in the 1990s.
A Forest of Dangers
The definition of healthy forests is contested. What might be described as a "nave"
environmentalism calls for a restoration of the forests to their original, pristine
conditions. Perhaps the opposing definition would be that of use-value: what can forests
produce that people need? A more sophisticated version of this adds the concept of
sustainability: how can the benefits of forests be made to endure? Stewardship is a key
contemporary environmental term. If the return to an original state is not possible, a
healthy balance of human uses in an environment of functioning ecosystems may be.
Fuel load is widely considered to be the major factor increasing the danger of wildfires.
Forest Ecosystem Health explains how accumulated biomass--"dead and dying trees,
dense undergrowth, and stands of small trees" is a major culprit for the recent increase
in wildfires. Interestingly, however, according to the CRS Report Wildfire Protection in the
108th Congress (September 2003) there is no definitive
proof of the dangers of fuel load: the evidence is largely anecdotal and based upon
surmises from experts.
Still the acreage of dead and dying wood and vegetation is increasing in scope and
density. While native biodiversity is decreasing, such imported invasive species as fungi
and beetles are adding to the threat. In California, for instance, Pitch Canker Fungus and
Oak Mortality Syndrome have been killing numerous trees,
likely laying the flammable
groundwork for the recent fires. Insect infestations make it easier for fungi to infect
Tree disease, then, works in a kind of deadly synergy with insect infestations. Pine bark
beetles, which tend to attack stressed and sick trees, are a common source of trouble.
True to its
name, the Fir Engraver Beetle etches through tree bark, then bores deep within where it
can lay its eggs.
exposed pion ips bark beetles.|
Extreme environmental conditions, such as drought and wind, can be the final
ingredient in a deadly menu of conditions that lead to savage wildfires.
El Nino and La Nina climate events may also enhance the spread of
wildfires. While drought does not seem to have been important in
California's recent fires, Santa
Ana winds, born in the Rocky Mountains and fanned by extreme
topography, were a major instigator. It has also been suggested
that global warming and climate change may contribute to an increase
in number and intensity of fires. As Forest
Fire Protection puts it, "as long as there is biomass, drought,
and high winds, catastrophic wildfires will occur."
Saving the Forests from the Trees
While prescribed fires have long been the major tool for alleviating forest fuel loads, a
number of methods currently under debate are discussed in Wildfire Protection
in the 108th Congress. These include thinning,
salvage, timber cutting, and goods-for-services contracting.
Effective forest management involves using a combination of methods, depending
upon circumstances, as explained in "Forest Ecosystem Health." Salvage
is best for removing medium and large "dead, dying, and threatened
trees." However, these and other logging methods leave behind slash,
portions of trees that may later contribute to fire. Precommercial
thinning, by contrast, cuts down trees "too small to have much commercial
value," although it, too, leaves behind slash. Pruning, which lacks
the slash problem, eliminates "low-growing branches, removing the
fuel ladders while improving the value of wood growth." These methods,
however, are quite expensive.
Because forests contain something of economic value, exchanging the rights to
timber for conservation services is only logical. The CRS Report Stewardship Contracting
for the National Forests (August 2001) explains that "a substantial portion of the biomass that many believe should be
removed is not of commercial value the small diameters and low quality effectively
prevent using the material profitably for producing lumber, paper, or energy."
Procurement contracting is the method by which logging companies have traditionally
paid for the right to cut timber. With this method, a contract specifies the tasks to be
performed, typically cutting commercially worthless material and either scattering or
With some 50 million acres containing at-risk biomass, procurement contracting may be
prohibitively expensive. Trading goods for services is a new approach, still being
studied, that may integrate various methods. In return for the right to cut timber, logging
companies agree to perform a variety of services that help decrease the fuel load.
Because one contractor performs multiple tasks, including those previously done by the
Forest Service, this approach may save considerable expense. Critics, however, worry
that this method lacks oversight and may discourage conservation on lands without
Conflict Heats Up
In August of 2002, the Bush administration proposed the Healthy Forests Initiative,
intended to expedite the removal of fuel load from our national forests. As Wildfire
Protection in the 108th Congress explains, the bill would hasten environmental studies to
"allow analysis of only the action proposed, rather than the broad array of alternatives."
It would further shorten the public input process and limit judicial challenge.
The Healthy Forests Initiative has become the major arena for disagreements between the
Bush administration and portions of the environmental community. The Sierra Club
believes that, "The initiative is based on the false assumption that landscape-wide logging
will decrease forest fires."
The dispute hinges upon how effectively logging reduces the most flammable forest components, those that
increase the risk of catastrophic wildfires. The Sierra Club argues that the Healthy
Forests Initiative "will give free reign to the timber industry across National Forests
under the guise of 'fuel reduction.'"
By contrast, the Bush administration claims that we must act quickly to alleviate
the danger from fuel load, and that the Healthy Forest Initiative
allows responsible logging as part of this process. According to
States Department of Agriculture Fact Sheet "the new authority
allows contractors to keep wood products in exchange for the service
of thinning trees and the removal of brush and dead wood to prevent
catastrophic wildfire while improving environmental conditions and
adhering to applicable environmental regulations."
Threatened Homes in Bear Valley, California. |
The California wildfires are merely the most visible recent manifestation of a mounting danger.
If, as seems likely, the recent trend toward an increase in number and ferocity of wildfires
increases, something must be done. And that something almost certainly involves a decrease in
fuel load. The question, then is how to do it. In the wake of the California fires, the Healthy
Forests Initiative completed its passage through Congress, and on December 3, 2003, President
Bush signed the act into law. Clearly, the message that something must be done, and quickly, has
been heard. Whether that something effectively balances environmental protection with the
enormity of the problem is a subject of continuing debate.
Written by Ethan Goffman.