Don't blame Mother Nature

July 01, 2002

IT WOULD BE easy, comforting even, to attribute the roaring fires ravaging northern Arizona and Colorado to the scourge of Mother Nature or the handiwork of an irresponsible forest ranger. But that would be too easy, and very wrong. As Arizona Sen. John McCain said recently, "There's plenty of blame to go around."

Mother Nature has done her share: seven years of drought contributed to the dry, fire-hungry forest beds present today. High winds and lightning storms have exacerbated an already dire situation.

But the primary culprit has been the push over the past 100 years to suppress the natural cycle of wildfires in America's woodlands. The government's forestry policy originated with fires in 1910 that burned 3 million acres in three states in 48 hours and claimed the lives of 78 firefighters.

In ensuing decades, the drive to extinguish every wildfire squelched the natural restorative power of the flames and spawned an underbelly of brush, fallen trees and piney debris that fueled the size and intensity of ensuing blazes.

Add to that environmental efforts to block logging projects and the growing number of homeowners who have claimed a piece of American wilderness in the shadows of its forests.

The cumulative effect of these factors can be seen in the devastating power and course of the wildfires so far this year. By the end of last week, 2,620,652 million acres had burned, according to the National Interagency Fire Center. That's double the amount recorded at the same time in 2000, the year of the spectacular Cerro Grande Fire in New Mexico that roiled for two months

The New Mexico fire was a "controlled burn" that raged out of control. Such burns have been part of forest management plans since the 1960s when experts realized the corrosive effect of its containment policy on the natural habitat. A smorgasbord of fire prevention tools followed: controlled burns, thinning out new-growth trees and ecological restoration of woodlands.

And yet a 1999 GAO report said the risk of big fires in the West would continue through 2015. Such conflagrations can cost $2 billion a year in fire-fighting manpower.

Last year, Congress adopted a national fire plan and set aside $205 million to clear the dense underbrush that sends fires rocketing to the treetops. But Congress can't keep John and Jane Doe from building their dream home in the back woods, at the edge of national forests. Fire officials call it "the urban-wildland interface." And the number of residents dwelling in these areas has increased tenfold since the mid-1970s.

The magnitude and destructive power of the wildfires should compel public officials to develop a coordinated policy to combat a repetition of this summer's incendiary disaster. Ecological restoration projects should be funded and encouraged; logging policies should be defined and carried out. Congress should penalize those jurisdictions that have yet to implement a fire management plan as requested six years ago.

Fire is a force unto itself, but it can be tamed and contained by restoring forests to their 19th-century habitats.

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