About CSA Products Support & Training News and Events Contact Us
Quick Links
Discovery Guides Areas

  Environmental Policy Issues

Wildfires, Fuel Loads, and Forest Management Policy Issues
(Released January 2004)



Key Citations

Web Sites


Contact Editor

California Burning

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
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 tinderboxes.

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 "na€ve" 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 already-penetrated trees.

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 pi€on ips bark beetles.
exposed pi€on 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 burning it.

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 harvestable timber.

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 a United 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 .
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.