Sierra Magazine

From July/August 1995 Sierra

Only You Can Postpone Forest Fires

After 100 years of fire suppression, an inferno awaits our national forests this summer. Shall we let it burn now—or later?

By Ted Williams

As a child I was traumatized by a forest fire of unimaginable fury. It was, in fact, the single most destructive wildland blaze the world has ever known, and I was no more than 50 feet from it. I watched in horror as conifers flashed to tinder point and the woods erupted into what ecopyrologists call a "running crown fire." The wilderness was reduced to a smoke-blackened ruin. Squirrels, rabbits, and deer ran in panic; even birds, flying at top speed, were barely able to stay ahead of the ravenous flames. I saw a father entreating his injured, exhausted son to rise from the ground. "Get up. Get up," he ordered. "You must get up!" Painfully, the son obeyed, and with firebrands and burning snags raining around them, they fled to a lake where the son—whose name was Bambi—was reunited with his wife.

About 35 years later I experienced another running crown fire, this time for real. Seven miles up Slough Creek Trail in the northeast corner of Yellowstone National Park, the sky blackened. Explosions, like the banter of distant howitzers, echoed down the valley as mature lodgepole pines were ripped up and slammed to the earth by the rush of air into the vacuum of the charging firestorm. On "Black Saturday"—August 20, 1988—the jet stream dipped out of the troposphere and fanned the flames over 165,000 additional acres, and I, too, retreated to big water. There, at Buffalo Ford in the Yellowstone River, I was reunited not only with my wife but with something that, at least at the moment, was even more exciting—feeding cutthroat trout. The towering convection column of the North Fork Fire covered the sun like a blood-soaked bandage as I shuffled out on lava bars into the main current. Ash flecks and caddis flies swirled about my neck and shoulders while all around me cutthroats, flanks stained scarlet by the dim, unworldly light, bulged through the glassy surface to intercept floating insects and, now and then, one of my feather imitations. It may have been hell for Bambi and the Old Stag, but it was heaven for me.

Shortly after we left the park, a sign went up at Grant Village warning firefighters to beware of "running bears." Not one was sighted because all the real animals were feeding contentedly or, in extreme cases, shuffling nonchalantly; only Disney animals run from fires. Even the federal government had been educated by Bambi, a film identified by Roderick Nash, professor of history and environmental studies at the University of California at Santa Barbara, as "the most important document in American cultural history" on the subject of fire-management policy.

I returned to Yellowstone last summer—six years after the Wall Street Journal had reported that the park had been "reduced to a smoke-blackened ruin" and Wyoming Senator Alan Simpson (R) had dressed down the National Park Service for having "destroyed" Yellowstone by tolerating wildfire. The fires, Simpson bellowed on the Senate floor, had "sterilized" the soil, had "blackened [it] to the very depths of any root system." But I saw a different picture in 1994. The paths of the hottest fires—where I had hiked through deep, powdery ashes—now supported a lush, solid carpet of fireweed, pine grass, snowberry, raspberry, elk sedge, lupine, and seedlings of Douglas fir, lodgepole pine, and aspen. I couldn’t find a bare spot.

America’s aversion to wildfire—apparent in our past and current forest management policies—has deep cultural roots. In the late 19th century, forester Bernhard Fernow proclaimed fire the "bane of American forests" brought on by "bad habits and loose morals." Gifford Pinchot, the first chief of the Forest Service, equated acceptance of fire in the forest with acceptance of slavery in the South. Even John Muir lamented that fires did ten times the damage of loggers.

In 1928 the American Forestry Association unleashed its "Dixie Crusaders," who barnstormed the South preaching against the evils of fire. Eight years later Forest Service Chief Ferdinand Silcox announced "an experiment on a continental scale" by which every fire would (he hoped) be doused by ten o’clock the following morning. "Ten a.m. Fire Control," he called it. In the late 1930s the Forest Service even hired an anti-fire preacher who mixed Biblical and government gospel in wailing, ranting sermons. The flames at Pearl Harbor had barely been extinguished when the perpetrators started tossing balloon-borne incendiary bombs to the west wind, the better to consume our Pacific Northwest timber. The devices looked as if they’d been designed by Rube Goldberg and couldn’t have been less effective if they had been, but they taught that to tolerate fire in the forest was to support tyranny in the world. In response, the Wartime Advertising Council hatched a shovel-swinging cartoon bruin that eventually learned to speak through the medium of Washington, D.C., radio personality Jackson Weaver, projecting his voice into an empty waste basket, where, alas, his plans for wildland ecosystems did not remain.

Smokey, like Pooh, is a bear of very little brain. There are, in fact, too few neurons within his noggin to process stimuli from his optic nerves. He can’t see the forest or the trees. He won’t shut up long enough to notice the lush grove of aspen suckers bursting from a fire-activated root system or the mountain bluebirds nesting in a gutted snag or the new blossoms in a scorched meadow or all the shrubs and deciduous trees releasing dormant buds under the bark of charred branches or even the serotinous pine cones with their resin seals melted away, raining fresh seeds on his head. Smokey never stopped swinging his shovel long enough to perceive that, along with the flames, he was extinguishing ecosystems—Michigan’s jack pines, for example, can’t reproduce without fire, and Kirtland’s warblers can’t reproduce without jack pines. He never figured out that forest fires can only be postponed, never "prevented," and that it is better for everyone—from lichens to fish to owls to bears to loggers—to get them over with on a natural cycle. In just an average workday Smokey did more lasting damage to America’s flora and fauna than Japan’s firebombers could have achieved had we airlifted them to the Pacific Northwest and put them up in Quonset huts.

Peter’s Mountain mallow is a lovely, pink-blossomed perennial related to the hollyhock, whose seeds need to be cracked in order to germinate. When the species was first discovered on a rocky Virginia mountainside in 1927 there were roughly 50 plants. The site had burned naturally every ten years or so, and the heat had always cracked the seeds. But then Smokey came around in the 1940s and started preventing Peter’s Mountain mallow. By 1980 the world’s population had dwindled to four specimens. In 1992, one year after the National Zoo quietly did away with its environmentally incorrect Smokey Bear exhibit, the Nature Conservancy burned the seed-laced, vestigial habitat of Peter’s Mountain mallow. Within a few days the population had increased from 4 plants to 14. A hotter prescribed burn a year later produced 500 more.

According to Don Despain, a plant ecologist with the National Biological Service, Yellowstone’s lush new lodgepole-pine forests could not have gotten started without the mineralized soil left by the 1988 wildfires. The seeds, he says, have little resistance to the "damping-off fungus" that lives in unheated forest duff.

Forests on the dry, east-facing slopes of Washington and Oregon were originally dominated by big, fire-resistant trees such as ponderosa pine, western larch, and Douglas fir, whose deep bark is a better insulator than asbestos of equal thickness. Historical accounts describe these forests as open, park-like, and supporting luxuriant grasses important to wildlife. But after 70 years of fire suppression, thin-barked species like grand and white fir that used to be kept in check by slow, low-intensity ground fires have become "fire ladders" to the forest canopy, so that now fire kills the big trees, too. The same process is under way on dry sites throughout the inland West. Forest Service Chief Jack Ward Thomas calls the situation "unhealthy."

There is no word more ambiguous than "health" as applied to an ecosystem by an ecologist. For example, a stand of diseased, insect-riddled timber is the healthiest of all woodpecker habitats. Thomas, the first ecologist ever to head the Forest Service, understands this, but he is now speaking as a resource steward, a position new and strange to him. By "unhealthy forests" he now means forests incapable of giving humans what they want. "We cannot, in my opinion, simply step back and wait for ‘nature’ to take its course," he said after the 1994 fire season, the most expensive in the nation’s history, costing the lives of 33 firefighters and $1 billion in federal fire-suppression funds. "I do not believe that what happened is acceptable as a solution to the problem. Fires at this scale and intensity are too hot, destructive, dangerous, and too ecologically, economically, aesthetically, and socially damaging to be tolerable."

Accordingly, the Forest Service is pursuing an aggressive health-care initiative for the national forests. Fuels are to be removed by thinning and prescribed burning, and timber killed but not consumed by fire, wind, insects, or disease—anywhere from 1.5 billion to 2 billion board feet—is to be "salvaged" from half a million acres. Some members of Congress would push the agency even further. The "rescissions" bill that at press time had passed the House and the Senate but had not been signed by the President would triple the agency’s salvage target.

For half a century the Forest Service has been diddling and fiddling with our national forests to fix them up—with the general result that it has fouled them up. Now it says it needs to diddle and fiddle to fix the mess. One can’t blame the environmental community for being skeptical.

An appalling one out of five of the areas the Forest Service has targeted for salvage cutting lie in wildlands unscarred by roads. "This health thing is designed to get into roadless areas," says Craig Gehrke, the Wilderness Society’s field representative in Idaho. "Either you cut in the roadless areas or you drop the timber cut, and Thomas figures he hasn’t got the political power to drop the cut." A "scam" is how Sara Folger of Washington State’s Inland Empire Lands Council defines the initiative.

Charlie Ogle, the Sierra Club’s national forest coordinator in Oregon, says that the Forest Service believes that this time it honestly knows what it’s doing. But good intentions have never protected the national forests. "According to mainstream thought, we’re in a heroic battle to beat back nature," Ogle says. "As long as that’s the view, we’re going to have major environmental problems."

Environmentalists’ prescription for forest health involves attempting to mimic nature—not taming or cashing in on it. "Thinning would be a good idea in roaded areas where you have an even-aged plantation—essentially a cornfield of 20-year-old trees—and you want to mix up the species composition," Ogle says. "Where the system has evolved around fire, it’s appropriate to reintroduce fire by letting a natural one go or jump-starting the process with a prescribed burn."

Thinning is also a justifiable fire-suppression tool in roaded areas where the opportunities for prescribed burns have been exhausted. "Take the money the Forest Service spends every summer trying to put out fires and turn those firefighters into fire technicians," says Andy Kerr of the Oregon Natural Resources Council. "Work them all year; let them do thinning, too. But we cannot make thinning into a timber sale because the economics of abuse skew the whole process."

Skewing the process like a dough squeezer at a pretzel factory is, for example, the Forest Service’s 10.5-million-board-foot Sugarloaf sale, justified as a preemptive strike against wildfire and awarded last August to the Boise Cascade company in spotted-owl habitat high in the roadless headwaters of Oregon’s Siskiyou National Forest. It’s another of what the Forest Service and the timber industry keep calling "win-win situations": you hack out some of the healthy old growth, helping out a mill or two in the process, and thereby "fire proof" everything that’s left. There is, however, no evidence that such a strategy will work and a good deal of evidence that it won’t. Old-growth stands tend to be cool, wet, and flame resistant; and if they need any tweaking by man, it’s a reduction of the pioneering and less merchantable fir that carries fire to their crowns. According to David Perry, professor of ecosystem studies at Oregon State University, the Sugarloaf sale is "likely to degrade owl habitat and make the stand more vulnerable to wildfire."

Even for an enlightened scientist like Thomas, steering the old guard away from temptations for abuse is going to be a daunting challenge. Consider the seductive features of "salvage logging." Because the public perceives burned forests as "dead anyway," salvage is an easy sell. And, under a provision in the National Forest Management Act, "harvest size limits shall not apply" to salvage cuts. Salvage allows roads to be carved into formerly inaccessible backcountry, the last remaining habitat for sensitive species intolerant of silty streams or human disturbance. Once the roads are in, they ensure continued cuts by preventing wilderness designation. A commonly used mechanism called the "categorical exclusion" allows the Forest Service to do away with public participation and environmental review simply by declaring an emergency. And with salvage sales the Forest Service gets to keep receipts to spend on roading and administering new salvage-sale sites, an arrangement that discourages cheaper, more effective medication. Congress’ latest salvage initiative will only make things worse, by boosting the salvage cut and exempting salvage sales from regulations protecting fish and wildlife.

The mind-set of the agency Thomas has inherited is revealed in an internal memo leaked from the Malheur National Forest in eastern Oregon. In this astonishing document, dated December 17, 1992, senior Forest Service staff instructed their employees: "Even if a sale is totally green, as long as one board comes off that would qualify as salvage on the Salvage Sale Fund Plan, it should be called Salvage. It’s a political thing."

Salvage has much more to do with economics—and politics—than with ecosystem health. There is no justification for it in roadless backcountry where log removal by helicopter is rarely cost effective, where even dead trees shade and hold in place the desiccated, mineralized soil, and where road construction destroys wilderness. Andy Kerr describes such "health care" as "mugging the burn victim."

Most everyone agrees that some human intervention is justified in and around the subdivisions that keep pushing up against the edges of public forestland—even if they wouldn’t have approved the development in the first place. Here, existing roads can act as fire breaks for prescribed burns, and public ordinances can require homeowners to cover roofs with fire-proof shingles and cut flammable vegetation out from under the eaves. Some progress is being made. California and Nevada now have laws requiring 30-foot swaths around each forest house, and, in Washington state, fire-zone residents—chastened by newspaper editorials—have put up signs with such messages as, "I was a dumb ass to build here. If a fire comes through, don’t risk anybody’s life to save my house." But the developers keep building, the houses keep burning, and the wildland firefighters—ill-trained for what are essentially urban fires—keep dying.

"We have a national flood-insurance program where if you build your house in a floodplain, you’re required to have flood insurance," says Andy Stahl, director of the Association of Forest Service Employees for Environmental Ethics (AFSEEE). "Why don’t we have the same thing for building your house in a fire zone? I’m surprised that the nation’s insurance underwriters haven’t banded together to impose a surcharge on these people. The rest of us are picking up the tab."

The chaparral of Southern California is a mountain ecosystem based in fire. Unless chaparral burns, seeds won’t germinate and basal buds won’t sprout. Organic material scarcely decays in this dry climate, so where Smokey has done his thing for 30 years, each square mile contains roughly 25,000 tons of dry, dead tinder. When the fire wind screams off the Mojave Desert and you have to keep blinking your eyes to keep them moist, you can gaze up at the canyons and see the shimmer of volatile hydrocarbon gasses synthesized for self-immolation by plants like ceanothus. Chaparral, especially after fire suppression, doesn’t just burn; it explodes. Building houses in it and other flammable forest types is like sleeping on subway tracks. But people keep doing it anyway.

In 1976 Harold Biswell, a fire researcher at the University of California, Berkeley, looked up at the surrounding hills and said, "There’s going to be a catastrophic fire up there." With that, he rounded up his students and began thinning. But local fire-zone residents heard the chainsaws and complained to the university that someone was attacking the forest—killing trees. Eager to oblige, the university stopped the project. Fifteen years later, on October 20, 1991, adjacent hills erupted into a firestorm that killed 25 people and destroyed 3,354 houses and 456 apartments.

Two years after that Southern California erupted. This time 1,200 structures were lost. Two firefighters died trying to keep a wall of flames away from a wall of houses built ten feet from a national forest boundary. Here and elsewhere Forest Service professionals had to be redeployed from wildfires to emergency yard work for the improvident—moving their firewood, clearing their debris, cutting their brush, trimming their overhanging branches.

Buildings need to be protected by common-sense ordinances and, when these fail, by fire lines, fire engines, and fire itself. But in undeveloped areas a question that needs to be asked by advocates of nature and fiscal prudence is: should we try to put out major forest fires? The Wall Street Journal says we should. The U.S. Congress says we should. Companies that manufacture or rent out fire-suppression equipment (who lobby Congress) say we should. According to a nationwide survey commissioned last October by the timber-oriented conservation group American Forests (formerly the American Forestry Association), 55 percent of all U.S. citizens say we should try to extinguish not only major forest fires, but all forest fires.

Yet the only real environmental damage associated with forest fires issues from human attempts to extinguish and prevent them. During last summer’s Thunder Mountain fire on Okanogan National Forest in Washington state, 18 miles of fire line were bulldozed into the Long Swamp roadless area through a watershed designated as critical for salmon under the Clinton administration’s forest plan. "They basically turned it into a war zone," reports Mark Lawler, national-forest chairman of the Cascade Chapter of the Sierra Club. "There are almost no limits to what they can do. They didn’t inspect any of the equipment going into these backcountry areas for seeds, so now we’re going to have noxious weeds blooming all through this pristine area. They knocked down just about every tree along Smarty Creek for a mile, ran lines along other creeks, too. It’s a disaster." The Thunder Mountain fire—which burned through a forest of mature, fire-dependent lodgepole pine—hardly responded to the Forest Service attack. It fizzled out when two inches of rain fell in 24 hours.

On July 6, 1994, fourteen firefighters died trying to contain a blaze on the White River National Forest in western Colorado. They gave their lives not for a cause—as suggested by fast-selling T-shirts depicting them ascending Storm King Mountain to "glory"—but for that superstition called "10 a.m. Fire Control." After a three-month investigation, the Forest Service and other federal agencies issued a 75-page report on the "incident" in which they offered vague suggestions—such as "Develop a user-friendly system that allows all levels to easily input and update resource (personnel) status"—but not a word about why a fire crew had been placed on a pile of tinder that, sooner or later, was going to explode no matter what.

"They were building a fire line across the mid-slope of a ridge," says AFSEEE’s Andy Stahl. "They were trying to prevent the fire from going up the hill. What was valuable further up the hill? Nothing! It was piñon, oak, and juniper. It had no economic value, and ecologically it was more valuable burned than unburned. It was a fire-created community; it needed fire. There were some houses at the bottom of the canyon. Why not just build a fire line down there and let the fire take off in the other direction? And the fact is, it did take off in that direction; no one could stop it."

This brings up an even more pertinent question: "Can we put out major wildfires? In most cases the answer is No, and federal resource agencies know it. During the Yellowstone fires the only successful suppression effort was mounted by the Church Universal and Triumphant, a major wildland developer whose spiritual leader, Guru Ma, says she used to be Marie Antoinette. As fire approached the group’s sacred meeting ground at Mol Heron Creek, Guru Ma organized her flock into rotating, mantra-chanting brigades of 300 that instructed the flames to "roll back." It worked. A month later, when the fire circled the church’s 30,000 acres and came in from the opposite side, Guru Ma ordered up a cold front from the appropriate archangel. That worked, too. Meanwhile, the Forest Service and Park Service were spending $130 million basically putting on a show for followers of Guru Smokey. Even in 1988 both agencies were admitting that their summer assault had virtually no effect on acreage burned.

But so spooked were the feds by the reaction of Congress and the public to the "incineration" of America’s first-born national park that they abandoned their enlightened management policy which, in certain remote areas, allowed natural fire to do its thing. Six years later, both the Park Service and the Forest Service have natural-fire policies back on line, albeit timid, confused ones. "In general the [constraints] we’ve had to put on don’t make any sense," says one of the federal government’s most respected fire researchers, who asked that I not use his name. "Now we’re not supposed to have extreme fires. We’ve reached a political cap."

But extreme fires in such habitat as lodgepole pine, for example, are healthy and necessary, and they are going to happen whether politicians approve or disapprove. "Forbidding extreme fires," says fire ecologist James Agee of the University of Washington, "is like declaring that there shall be no more earthquakes."

This brings up maybe the most pertinent question of all. Even though the feds know that fighting major forest fires doesn’t work, are they willing to destroy the bloated industry that has grown up around it? As a money-maker, wildfire suppression is catching up to timber removal. Chinook helicopters, for example, rent for $109,396 a day. Fixed-wing, P3-A Orion tankers go for $40,600 a day. A water truck owner can make $1,852 a day. During major fires, accountability goes out the window. For instance, three years ago during the eight-day Fountain Fire in California’s Shasta County, the state spent $1,005 on telephones (missing after the fire) and paid one firefighter $21,206.

The "job fire," ignited by seekers of employment, is becoming a western tradition. Last August 29, according to the Longview, Washington, Daily News, Ernest Earl Ellison pleaded guilty to conspiracy to commit arson, admitting that he had set three forest fires in California’s Trinity County as part of a plot to make money for companies that lease firefighting equipment. More arrests are expected.

Forest fires provide work even after they’re out. After an arsonist torched 9,700 acres of roadless spotted-owl habitat along Oregon’s Warner Creek, Willamette National Forest Supervisor Darrel Kenops declared a salvage sale, targeting ten times the timber his own scientists had determined could safely be removed before the fire. When Forest Service biologist Eric Forsman suggested that this might teach that crime pays, he was severely reprimanded and ordered to make a public apology to "all honest, hardworking loggers." When civilians suggested the same thing, Kenops allowed that probably his investigators had been wrong in finding that the fire had been deliberately set. After loud derision, Kenops quickly re-embraced the arson theory. But then the Forest Service denied all public appeals, thereby eliciting a lawsuit from the Sierra Club and the Oregon Natural Resources Council (at press time a decision was still pending). A fire sale of Warner Creek timber would send a clear message to loggers who aren’t honest or hardworking: "Don’t like spotted-owl ‘lock-ups’? Light ’em up."

When the Forest Service wants to do prescribed burning, it has to use previously appropriated funds. When, on the other hand, it wants to launch military-style assaults on big wildfires, it has only to reach into the Forest Firefighting Fund—an enormous, self-filling cookie jar in which funds accumulate by an automatic appropriation process set up by Congress. And if ever the Forest Service wants more than the cookie jar can hold, Congress obliges, as it did in 1994 when it tossed in an "emergency appropriation" of $450 million. Fire historian Stephen Pyne of Arizona State University likens American fire management to American medicine: "capable of spending unlimited third-party funds for heroic intervention on behalf of dying seniors, unable to immunize its children."

Some things never change. Last summer, as I hiked through Yellowstone National Park’s new growth, its old growth—this time in the southwest corner—was burning again. Again, the Wall Street Journal was puffing and blowing about a government gone soft on wildfire: "Letting [fires] burn has become one of the cherished dogmas of the environmental elite, a group now firmly entrenched in the various agencies of Mr. Babbitt’s Interior Department and gaining ground. . . . As we’ve come to expect from environmentalist theology, however, natural regulation theory ranks humanity, its livelihoods and its property relatively low on the chain of being, at least below the spotted owl."

Again, the Park Service was throwing big money at a lightning-caused blaze, placating politicians and the public until the weather could quench the flames. Again, in national forests from California to Idaho, the Forest Service was trying to save nature from itself. Again, I retreated to big water. While the West burned around me, I waded out on a lava bar at Buffalo Ford, stringing up my fly rod as if it were a fiddle.

Ted Williams, who has been writing about environmental issues for the past 25 years, shares an obsession with fishing, but not baseball, with the "real"—or as he much prefers, "elder"—Ted Williams.

Kindling a New Fire Ethic

As another fire season approaches, anxiety about fires in the West is building as inexorably as piles of dead wood on the forest floor. Some members of Congress are using this concern as an excuse to suspend environmental safeguards. Agencies are coming up with wise and unwise "forest-health plans" that involve thinning, controlled burning, and "salvage logging." Peering through the rhetorical smoke are conservationists who see both the danger of out-of-control wildfire and the disaster of uncontrolled logging.

Sierra Club activists have come up with the following practical guidelines:

MAKE IT OFF-LIMITS. In those few remaining areas of our public forests that have never yet been cut, logging of any kind should be forbidden, even "thinning" in the name of fire protection and "salvage sales" cloaked as cleanup. Streamside corridors, national parks, and wilderness and other roadless areas should also be closed to timber sales.

LET IT BURN. Naturally occurring fires should be allowed to burn where scientists consider periodic burns beneficial. Decisions to try to put out human-caused fires should be made on a case-by-case basis. Carefully controlled prescribed burns should be allowed in areas where wildfire could pose an unreasonable threat to human life or important biological communities. In areas included in or proposed for the National Wilderness Preservation System, however, the forest should be managed primarily by the forces of nature.

LIMIT SALVAGING AND THINNING. Overzealous salvage logging and thinning have already done far more damage to our nation’s forests than fires. Both should be restricted to areas heavily logged and roaded in the past. Neither activity should be above the law.

PUT IT OUT. When fires do pose an unacceptable threat to human lives or communities, prompt suppression efforts should be undertaken.

KEEP IT SIMPLE. Minimum-impact methods should be used to control or prevent fires, not destructive, military-style sieges.

SITE SENSIBLY. Development should be discouraged in areas of high fire risk.

Up to Top