Greed leads to disaster in Fla. Fires: Replacing native pine with another species for quick economic gain laid the groundwork for the current devastating forest fires.

On the Bay

July 10, 1998|By Tom Horton | Tom Horton,SUN STAFF

DISASTERS are seldom what they first seem.

Famines are less about failed crops than about the politics and inequities that impede sharing food in a bounteous world.

The environmental impact of large oil spills often is less than the damage done by attempts at a quick cleanup.

Of all this country's natural killers, by far the greatest -- surpassing floods, hurricanes, tornadoes, lightning, mudslides and blizzards together -- is hot weather.

And on that heated note, the blazes currently riveting national attention on Florida are less about the need to "pray for rain" -- Gov. Lawton Chiles' plea -- than about a desperate need to set more fires.

To make sense of this, and for insights into the nature of disaster in our own Chesapeake Bay region, consider the pine forests that dominated Florida's landscape for thousands of years.

They were not the dense stands of slash pine, the species one sees nowadays all over Volusia, Flagler and Brevard counties, where a half-million acres lie charred, where tens of thousands of Floridians had to evacuate their homes.

Most of the slash was planted since the 1930s by timber interests in search of a faster buck. You can clear cut and replant it every 20-30 years for pulpwood.

The natural woods it replaced were slower-growing longleaf, a magnificent pine that can grow for five centuries and whose wood is so hard and durable it seems more like oak or teak.

The longleaf forest, which in Colonial times stretched from Virginia to Texas, was as dependent for its growth on frequent fires as a field of corn is on the farmer's fertilizer.

From remnants that remain, we know it was an open, sun-spangled forest, almost a treed prairie, with widely spaced pines amid a waist-high, undergrowth of tawny wiregrass that rippled beautifully in the breeze.

Fires set by lightning (Florida is the lightning capital of the United States) surged routinely through the longleaf forest every few years, the flames carried along by the wiregrass.

The pines, even in their tender, seedling stages, were superbly adapted to survive the flames, without which the slow-growing longleaf could not have out-competed other plant species.

Also notable: As forest fires go, those among the longleaf were seldom that intense, as the frequent burning allowed little excess fuel to accumulate.

That all changed with the advent of slash pine plantations, where excess fuel -- fallen limbs, needles, and dense, shrubby undergrowth like palmettos, has been accumulating for decades some cases.

The result was a time bomb that went off this year after a drought left the piney woods supremely vulnerable to the high-intensity wildfires that now ravage northeastern Florida.

This is what causes experts like Geoff Babb, the regional fire manager for the Nature Conservancy's extensive forests in Florida, to say, "What is needed is to be more aggressive in setting [controlled] fires. to keep fuel supplies low."

The ecology of fire in the forest is less spectacular around the bay watershed, whose tree species never needed to burn with anything like the frequency of longleaf pine.

But there is evidence, nonetheless, that our modern history of treating forest fire more as disaster than as a part of nature is leading to real problems here.

Research is showing that wide areas of the Eastern United States are undergoing a marked shift, from oak-dominated forests to maple and other shade-tolerant species.

And if the oaks go, so do the acorns that are an important food staple for a lot of creatures we consider part of our heritage -- including deer, wild turkey and squirrels.

Suppression of forest fires -- fires which the oaks need in order to out-compete maples -- is not the only factor. Gypsy moths, which favor oaks over maples, are another, for example.

Still, forest ecologists like Marc Abrams at Penn State University conclude that fire does seem to be the "common denominator" in oak forests' flourishing.

We not only misinterpret the real nature of disasters, we fail to appreciate how changes in our habits cause disasters to mutate.

Chicago's "worst" heat wave, for example, killed 550 people in 1995. In fact, the city had several longer, hotter spells in the 1930s, with far fewer deaths.

But back then, vulnerable old people sweltered and even slept in the street, where neighbors could check on them. In 1995, victims typically stayed shut up alone in apartments for fear of crime, or used air conditioning too sparingly for fear they couldn't afford the electrical bill.

Similarly, Florida is perhaps the nation's most progressive state in regard to using controlled burns to prevent bigger wildfires.

But the counties under siege are ones where people have increasingly moved into the forest in recent years, fragmenting the landscape and making fire management both physically difficult and legally risky (as in, "I'm suing you for smoking up my laundry and making my asthmatic kid cough").

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