Forest fires: Let 'em burn?

Climate and, ironically, our obligation to fight fires mean the West has become one big tinderbox.
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Climate and, ironically, our obligation to fight fires mean the West has become one big tinderbox.

Flames leapt from pine trees and expensive rooftops beneath the red glow of a massive fire and a lowering cloud of smoke. Colorado's Waldo Canyon blaze drove nearly 30,000 people from vulnerable hillside homes in Colorado Springs. Two hundred sixty-five square miles burned in New Mexico's Gila National Forest. Even before the end of June, a good deal of the Intermountain West was blazing. Should we blame climate change? A century of fire suppression? Freak weather?

Possibly all of the above. First of all, the intermountain West has had freak weather. On June 26, the temperature in Colorado Springs reached an all-time high. Some people "are trying to argue this [unusally hot, dry weather] is an extreme," notes Lisa Graumlish, dean of the University of Washington's College of the Environment and an expert on climate change. But "extreme events are by their nature rare," and "we don't have the data" to say that this year's acute conditions reflect a changing climate. However, she says, we do know — and "this is really important" — that "spring has been coming earlier and earlier." This isn't conjecture. It "is a trend we can look at . . . through good observational data."

On top of the heat spike, less snow has been falling in the Rockies. Last year, Graumlich and her graduate students published a paper in Science explaining that such low snowpack in both the northern and southern Rockies hasn't been seen since the 1500s. What was happening then? No one knows, although Graumlish assumes it had something to do with Pacific Ocean currents. Now, climate change caused by human activity helps to drive the process.

The bottom line is that there's less snow and therefore less lingering moisture in the mountains than at any time in the past 500 years. As a result, "fuels are drying out a month ahead of time," Graumlich explains. Earlier drying means earlier fires. "We're having fires in June that we would normally have been having in August."

Graumlich and her team think this is the new normal. "It's almost like a step change," she says. In the late 1980s, we seem to have crossed "a threshold where we lost that [normal Rocky Mountain] snowpack. . . . This was a train wreck that we could see coming." And the pattern reinforces itself. "We're seeing the jet stream gradually move northward as the earth warms." Consequently, "winter storms that bring snow to the southern Rockies are less frequent. . . . That incremental slow movement of the jet stream north just results in less snow. It melts off earlier."

"The other climate-related trend," Graumlich says, "is the beetle-killed forest." If the weather warms up earlier, "for a number of the forest pests . . . life cycles are accelerated." That means more beetles and other pests killing more square miles of pines and other trees. With early springs and massive beetle kills, "you've got your fine fuels drying out," Graumlish explains. "You've got your big fuels dead." In other words, you have the tinder to start a fire and the big wood to keep it going.

A lodgepole pine forest that hasn't burned for 100 years has lived out its alloted span. It's time for the bugs and the fires. And in other forests, the fuel has built up more than nature — or native cultures — would have allowed. "These forests have not burned in decades," says David Peterson, who leads the Fire and Environmental Research Applications Team at the Forest Service's Pacific Wildland Fire Sciences Laboratory and also serves as a UW Affiliate Professor, Environmental and Forest Sciences. "Forests that would have experienced fires once every 10 to 30 years now haven't burned in 70 or 80 years."

What's sauce for the Southwest is sauce for the Northwest, too. Washington may not have as many beetle-killed trees as B.C. — although, Peterson says. the devastation in British Columbia "certainly has gotten everyone's attention," — but it does have a lot of dead and dying lodgepole pine forests just waiting to burn.

It also has plenty of land in which loggers long ago "high graded" the big, old Ponderosa pines and people have suppressed the frequent small fires — some presumably natural and some set for millennia by native groups — that used to clear out the understory, allowing Douglas fir and alpiine fir, which don't really belong there, to get footholds. Those trees have grown big and densely-packed, with multi-layered overstories and a vulnerability to drought, creating opportunities for spruce budworm. When pests kill the trees, the dense stand of dead wood creates a fire hazard that would not have developed in an open stand of big Ponderosa.

People have recognized these problems for decades. Mountain pine beetles and spruce budworms invaded the Okanogan National Forest in the 1980s, when the beetles had already started chewing their way through interior B.C. By the early 90s, conditions in Oregon's Blue Mountains had grown bad enough to inspire a much-noticed if soon-forgotten report on forest health.

Nevertheless, Washington may soon start addressing this old problem with a bit of new urgency. At the beginning of July, Washington Commissioner of Public Lands Peter Goldmark proposed a forest health hazard warning for eastern Okanogan and western Ferry County. If the warning goes into effect after a series of public meetings and consultations, Goldmark has proposed using $4.3 million from the recently-passed state jobs bill to jump-start the process of reducing fuel loads. Goldmark's proposal follows the recommendations of a nine-member Forest Health Technical Advisory Committee.

Even before the committee finished its deliberations, he suggested that thinning vulnerable forests would be crucial — and would also supply jobs to chronically-depressed rural areas. Goldmark knows that in the past, thinning forests to reduce fuel loads has been used as a pretext to log federal land that would otherwise have been off-limits. He says we have to make sure that doesn't happen here.

In some places, landowners — often with money and advice from the Forest Service — have gotten together to reduce fuel loads in their own neighborhoods or communities. Peterson notes that when the feds chip in money, "it sure helps motivate landowners," and he says that in some cases it has worked very well indeed: Last summer, when huge fires swept through Arizona, some high-elevation communities "basically kept the fire out."

People are doing it in Washington, too. The best example, Peterson says, is the Tapash Sustainable Forest Collaborative, which includes the U.S. Forest Service, the Yakama Nation, the Nature Conservancy, the Washington Department of Natural Resources and the Washington Department of Fish and Wildlife. The goal is both to prevent fires and more broadly to improve forest health.

One can accomplish both, Peterson suggests, by creating forests that contain trees of varying ages, so they don't all start dying at once. That's a tall order, and Peterson says he's "not sure we're going to find nirvana any time soon," but he thinks that "within two decades we could make significant progress."

According to Peterson, who recently served on the forest health technical advisory committee, there was one basic question the committee faced frequently: "How can you make a difference over such a huge area?" The are so many dead and diseased trees waiting for a spark, that it's hard to know where to start. You can't do it all. You "have to be more strategic."

In theory, local loggers thin the forests, and local mills process the wood. One unleashes the power of the private sector and the process pays for itself. In reality, though, some of that wood is worth very little, and there are no longer many mills within reasonable hauling distance. Without outside funding, most thinning just won't happen. "The challenge, of course, is who pays for it," Peterson says.

One can conclude that burning the forests periodically is nature's way; that in many places, fires can be delayed but not prevented, and that therefore, it makes sense to just let the woods burn. That idea came at least briefly to public consciousness — and was, at least briefly, debated — when a massive wildfire swept through Yellowstone National Park in 1988. Park officials did let it burn, not realizing how large it would grow — because they didn't realize how large fires had grown in the past. At first, they were widely criticized for allowing so much forest to be destroyed. But then, they were vindicated.

“News accounts at the time declared the park all but destroyed,” Joby Warrick reported in the Washington Post on June 14, 1998, roughly ten years after the fires began. “But a decade later, scientists are heralding its spectacular rebirth. Yellowstone is exploding with new life and shattering old notions about fire’s role in the natural world.”

Warrick wrote that “[t]he greening of Yellowstone is sweet vindication for park officials who were pilloried 10 years ago for initially letting the fires burn. Robert Barbee, then the park’s superintendent, was dubbed ‘Barbee-cue Bob’ by his critics. Politicians suggested he should be charged with arson. Park officials today stand by [Barbee’s 1988] policy, even while acknowledging that booming development on the outskirts of the park could make future firefighting decisions more complicated. From the park’s vantage point, they say, the only clear loser in 1988 was the mind set . . . that fire is an evil that should be stamped out at all cost.”

But it would be hard to let a big fire burn in Yellowstone again. Too many people have built houses around the periphery of the park. This is part of a pattern: In much of the West — including Colorado Springs and, yes, parts of eastern Washington — people build houses in forests that have been shaped and periodically swept by wildfire, then expect government to save them from wildfire, just as people move into floodplains and expect government to save them from floods. And government does. With all that real estate at risk, who's going to just let 'er burn? And who is going to set smaller fires to get rid of fuel loads?

"Fires that occur in, say, high mountain wilderness areas will not be put out," Peterson explains. "It happens in Alaska all the time." In addition, every year, prescribed burns reduce fuel loads on a million to two million acres of federal forest — but for obvious reasons, those aren't the acres dotted with rustic chateaux. If houses are there, no one is just going to let a big fire burn.

There is "tremendous political pressure and local community pressure to put fires out," he says. "If they said, 'O.K., we're not going to put this fire out in Colorado,' all hell would break loose."


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About the Authors & Contributors

Daniel Jack Chasan

Daniel Jack Chasan

Daniel Jack Chasan is an author, attorney, and writer of many articles about Northwest environmental issues.