I cannot even imagine how terrified and worried the people of Colorado, Montana, New Mexico, and Wyoming are with this fire season literally blazing away. Watching the news, viewing the pictures and video of the fires makes me shudder. Most of the state of Wyoming is under a no burn ban…no wood campfires, no open fires of any kind, including a charcoal fire. Heck, they’re even telling people they aren’t allowed to smoke in these areas, unless it’s in an enclosed vehicle or home, or unless you’ve cleared an area nine feet square. And, when they say “cleared” they mean down to bare ground. When Ken takes me “home” this summer, we’ll be taking the propane camp stove and grill. Making ‘smores over a propane grill won’t be the same as over a campfire, but hey! I’m not going to burn down what’s left of the forest.
Despite the damage and destruction these fires are causing, there are bright spots. So many of my Facebook friends are “dog people.” We share a common interest in showing, raising, and breeding dogs. When the fires started to threaten populated areas of Colorado, the word went out on Facebook that Person A had space to take X amount of dogs for the duration. Person B had space to a few others. Person C not only had room for dogs, but room for horses, as well. One by one, forwarded message by forwarded message, dogs, horses, family pets, and families were given shelter from the infernos raging across the Intermountain west. This is a good thing.
Yet, when I read the reports—that so many of these fires are burning in areas of old growth, with a lot of old, downed trees—I have to shake my head. Didn’t those people who manage these forests learn anything from the Yellowstone fires? In the “Summer of Fire” in 1988, precipitation was 150% above normal. But, by the end of May, there was no rain. And, no rain in June…sounding familiar?
|Grant Village as Yellowstone burns during the Summer of Fire|
Prior to the Yellowstone fires in 1988, the Forest Service had a policy of attempting to put out EVERY single fire, regardless of the cause. Yellowstone National Park paid the price for that policy. By not allowing fire—a natural event that often clears away dead brush, overgrowth, and downed trees—to wipe clean the landscape, the Forest Service literally created a tinder box. Decades of mismanagement, by not allowing the forest to be cut (GASP! Yes, I said “CUT!”) to thin out the trees, by not allowing the undergrowth to be removed, because for every ecologist/environmentalist who says we MUST thin the forest to sustain a healthy forest, there are at least ten environmentalists who will tie up a proposed cut or even a controlled burn for years in the courts and now coupled with devastating drought has created this glimpse into the heart of hell so many in the West are viewing.
America’s public lands have undergone radical changes during the last century due to the suppression of fires and a lack of active forest and rangeland management. In healthy forests, low-intensity fires help rejuvenate habitat by clearing out underbrush and small trees, leaving an open forest with strong, fire-resistant, mature trees. Today, the forests and rangelands of the West have become unnaturally dense, and ecosystems have suffered. Representative Doolittle (CA) stated back in 2003 that “Due to decades of mismanagement, the thinning of these forests remains largely unpracticed within our state, leaving forests that historically contained just 30 to 40 trees per acre, now filled with 300 to 400 trees per acre.” That was in CA. It’s no different in the Intermountain West.
|Perhaps one of the most famous images of a forest fire: elk escaping a crown fire by standing in the middle of a stream|
In Oregon, federal officials identified the Squires Peak area as a high fire risk in 1996, and began planning a project to thin crowded trees and dense underbrush on 24,000 acres. After six years of analysis and documentation, administrative appeals and two lawsuits, work was allowed to begin on 430 acres of the original 24,000-acre project. When lightning ignited the Squires Peak fire on July 13, 2002, with only a fraction of the area thinned, the fire quickly spread to 2,800 acres. The thinned area was unharmed by the fire. In un-thinned areas, the fire killed most trees, sterilized soils, and destroyed the habitat of threatened spotted owls. The fire cost $2 million to suppress, and $1 million will be needed to rehabilitate the devastated area.
I am certainly not advocating burning our National Forests, Grasslands, and Parks to the ground. However, I am advocating that the forests must be thinned to allow for more mature trees, capable of withstanding a rapidly moving fire, to sustain the forest. Yes, I know, some trees actually need a fire to cause the cones to open and disperse seeds. A fast moving fire will do just that. The problem is, even though most of the fires now in the west are spreading fast, they’re not moving from origin, because there is too much fuel for the fire. They’re just growing larger.
Yellowstone management learned from the fires of 1988. The policy was changed that if a fire in Yellowstone started because of natural causes (lightning strikes) the fire would be allowed to burn as it willed, and only man-made structures would be protected. The Yellowstone eco-system is healthier for it. There is no longer an accumulation of decades’ worth of tinder, granting fuel to a fire. The new-growth trees that are growing in Yellowstone are now at least 20 years old. Lightning started fires are allowed to burn, and they burn off the dead timber, destroy much younger trees, and keep the forest floor cleaner and less filled with combustible materials.
This really isn’t rocket science. For thousands of years, forest fires raged, keeping the forests healthy, with mature trees, and rejuvenating the forest floor. Maybe, it’s time to look at how we manage the forests and maybe, this time, it won’t be just Yellowstone where the fires are allowed to burn. Maybe, we’ll finally admit that perhaps…just perhaps…Mother Nature might actually know what She’s doing.