Wildfires: It's that Time of the Season, Part I

By: Amos S. Eno
Posted on:05/20/2013 Updated:04/16/2014

Wildfire season in the United States has officially begun, most notably with the Springs Fire in Ventura County, California. The combination of high temperatures, low humidity, and brittle brush created a veritable tinderbox that, once lit, was fueled by strong Santa Ana winds. Unfortunately, it is likely that this will not be an uncommon occurrence, as the National Interagency Fire Center has predicted an above normal potential for significant fires on much of the west coast from now through August, and the same for the southwest during June.

With the wildfire season underway, politicians have renewed discussion on the topic. Earlier this week, Agriculture Secretary Tom Vilsack and Interior Secretary Sally Jewell visited Boise, Idaho, to speak about this year’s wildfire season. They stressed the need for inter-agency cooperation, as “Federal, Tribal, State, and local government agencies recognize that the challenge is too great for any one organization to tackle on its own,” said Secretary Jewell. Another point of emphasis was the importance of fire prevention and protection at the individual and community level, and urging the public to make use of informational and instructional programs such as Firewise and Ready, Set, Go.

Unfortunately, one of the most important aspects of combating wild fires, fire prevention through forest management activities, such as selective tree thinning and prescribed burning - as opposed to fire suppression - was awarded last place in their press release. As Bob Williams, Vice President of Forestry Operations at Land Dimensions and a member of the Society of American Foresters explains; “We should be stressing the problem and taking every sound bite we can to help educate the public on the necessity of needing to manage our open spaces; forests, rangelands, the whole nine yards.”

Another problem we currently see with government policies relating to this issue – land management, and more indirectly wildfires – is a continued push to buy more open space. President Obama’s 2014 budget proposal calls for additional public land acquisition, and while preserving forests and open space is great, continually buying more is ill advised, as our underfunded and understaffed Forest Service currently has a maintenance backlog of $6 billion on the millions of acres it already has.

Additional land acquisition will only perpetuate what Williams describes as a “land abandonment policy,” where lands are bought, only to sit unmanaged and without any real access for the public in the form of roads, trails and visitor centers. Thus, the policy fails its two main goals; preserving natural landscapes and providing public access to them for recreation. 

Thankfully, the Western Governors’ Association (WGA), and Senators John Thune (SD) and Orin Hatch (UT) stated their concern for the current state of our federal forest lands and recognized the need to manage them; the former sending a letter to Secretary Vilsack, and the latter a letter to Senators Reed (RI) and Murkowski (AK), Chairman and Ranking member of the Senate Appropriations Committee.

The WGA rightly observed that our forests “are overgrown; they exhibit all the symptoms of an unhealthy ecosystem,” and Senators Thune and Hatch added that “large landscapes of dead and infested trees pose a significant threat of forest fires,” and proposed diverting money for land acquisition to land management.

As the above illustrates, this is as much a social-political problem as it is a forestry science one. Williams explains that “purchasing the land and preserving it is an easy sell,” everyone enjoys national parks and forests. However, saying we need to cut down trees and burn our forests triggers alarm bells in the minds of the public.

Those words are likely to conjure images of clear-cutting and the devastating wildfires we see on the news, but the reality of these management policies are much different. Williams adamantly states: “I don’t see fire hazard as an excuse to go log a forest. I find that reprehensible, but I do see that we need to cut some trees to address the concerns of fire. But the perception is that they’ll just use that as an excuse to cut down a forest, but that’s not what we’re talking about.”

Controlled burns prescribed and selective timber harvesting by professional foresters like Williams actually make our forests healthier and more fire resistant. Overgrown – some would say dilapidated – forests can choke an ecosystem and reduce biodiversity, as well as create a fuel overload; more fuel equals larger and more destructive fires.

Stay tuned for Part II coming later this week.

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re: Wildfires: It's that Time of the Season, Part I
By: Amos Eno on: 05/23/2013

Glad to hear it. Be sure to read Part II tomorrow and follow the Wildfire, Wildlands, and People link. It's an extensive article on wildfires in general, but more importantly the wildfire-human interface.

re: Wildfires: It's that Time of the Season, Part I
By: Bruce Ward on: 05/23/2013

Totally on board with you and Bob. I have been evacuated from my home in Colorado three times because of wildfires. I will do what I can to help.