Fighting fire with fire

Los Alamos blaze: Federal lands decisions under question as result of uncontrolled "controlled burn."

May 13, 2000

THE BIGGEST casualty of the wildfire now sweeping through north New Mexico may not be the hundreds of homes burned in Los Alamos.

It could well be the credibility of the National Park Service and sister agencies that manage hundreds of millions of acres of publicly owned lands.

Particularly vulnerable is the long-accepted practice of controlled burning -- setting small fires to burn off dried brush and trees to prevent the eruption of wildfires. Hundreds of thousands of acres are purposely burned each year to create fire breaks, cleared areas beyond which natural or accidental fires cannot advance because of a lack of fuel.

But controlled burns are always risky business, especially since they have to be set when the targeted areas are dry enough to efficiently burn, yet winds are not strong enough to fan the flames out of control.

That can lead to serious consequences, as it did a week ago when rangers at Bandolier National Monument in New Mexico began to burn 900 acres of tinder-dry scrub brush. Weather predictions of high winds and low humidity apparently were not heeded.

Some 30,000 acres have burned so far, and 25,000 people were forced from Los Alamos, the birthplace of the atomic bomb.

The fallout will unfortunately bolster criticism of other controversial federal land management decisions, such as wolf repopulation programs and wild bison protection.

The biggest impact may be on wilderness protection and forestry decisions, where timber interests argue that more aggressive logging can better limit wildfires and more fire roads will provide greater capability to fight conflagrations.

Fighting fire with fire will remain a powerful tool for public land managers. But it must be used with extreme caution. That is the lesson of Los Alamos.

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