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Public Radio's Environmental News Magazine (follow us on Google News)

Fires Update

Air Date: Week of

Tim Egan, a reporter with the New York Times, discusses some of the factors that led to the wildfires raging across the western United States and what the Clinton Administration and others are planning to prevent future blazes.


CURWOOD: It's Living on Earth. I'm Steve Curwood. For more than a month now, fires have been searing the western United States. These blazes are burning with unusually high temperatures and fast-spreading flames. The infernos follow years of suppressing fires that naturally thin the forest. Controlled burns remain a viable but controversial prevention option. Some suggest thinning small trees, and others say full-scale logging is the way to go. Next week, the Clinton Administration is expected to release its plan to restore the forests and find a way to deal with the excess of young trees crammed in among the more fire-resistant older ones. Tim Egan, who covers the northwest for the New York Times, says that there are two reasons for the existence of these overgrown and overcrowded forests.

EGAN: One is, we've taken fire out of these national forests. Fire would come through and clean them with sort of a purging effect. And since fire no longer comes through there, you have these crowded stands of trees. The other case is, and this is an interesting part of the debate, is some of the most dangerous fire-prone areas right now are areas that have been heavily logged, and then replanted with these very tight, crowded stands of commercially-viable timber. And those little trees are in there now, and they're pretty vulnerable as well.

CURWOOD: What do you think the Clinton Administration will decide to do now?

EGAN: Well, under Interior Secretary Bruce Babbitt they are now proposing to follow the plan of something they did in northern Arizona, north of Flagstaff, where they've had some huge burns over the last ten years. And they're experimenting with going in and just commercially thinning, just going in and sending crews of people in there and taking out these thin trees, doing the job of fire, somewhat. And it's not really for logging, because the trees are pretty thin. There's nothing really commercially viable in there. So the Clinton Administration wants to open up this pilot program to other national forests. Under Governor Bush, he has come out, and mainly speaking for him has been Governor Roscoe of Montana, a Republican governor, who I should give all your listeners a heads-up, he's being touted as potential Interior Secretary under a Bush administration. And he wants to open up logging in more of the national forests. He says we've been remiss because under Clinton logging has been reduced 75 percent in the national forests. And Governor Roscoe, and Governor Bush to a lesser extent, have both said "look, we've got to go back a little more to the way it was. The reason these forests are all burning now is because we stopped commercially logging." So they would do, as opposed to the Clinton Administration, they wouldn't just go thin, they'd do a lot of fairly aggressive logging, return to some of the clear-cutting and some of the bigger stuff that we had until about ten years ago.

CURWOOD: Now what about the nonpartisan scientists? What do they think should be done to address this situation in the forests?

EGAN: Well, the forest managers and the fire ecologists, the people who study fire ecology, are generally nonpartisan to begin with. And when you give them a chance and ask them what they'd like to do, and you see what they put into some of the fire management reports and some of the forest management reports, there is a general consensus that you need to get this fuel load out of there, you need to get these thinner trees out of there. But after that, forest health can be returned. I mean, most people think yeah, we did screw it up, and they do say yeah, it was a mistake. But they don't also then throw their hands in despair and say we'll never make it right again. They say the good news is, we've learned that nature, if left to take its course, will generally take care of itself.

CURWOOD: Tim, from your reporting, how much do you think these fires in the western U.S. are related to the fact we've got more people living in the west?

EGAN: Yeah, that's a good question, because even with the forests in bad shape, you still need an igniter. You still need some spark to start these fires. And what's starting these fires more than ever is not necessarily lightning, although lightning is a huge culprit here, but human beings. Now, who are the human beings that are causing this? Well, more and more people live at the edge of national forests in the west, and they live in wilderness areas. And so people start fires with a spark from their lawn mower, with a barbecue, with something, a firework, a cigarette, a road -- usually it's something just as simple as a truck that scrapes against a rock and the spark starts -- that's how grass fires usually start. So, the fact that human beings live so close to our designated wilderness areas, that's leading to an increase in man causing most of the fires. And how the other part of that equation is that most of the firefighting effort now, and this has been doing on, oh, easily since the early 90s, is not about people out with shovels and Pulaskis and Fusis and all these things that these armies of firefighters use trying to protect drainages or ecosystems. There are all these people out, as one person said, trying to save folks' summer homes. If the people weren't there, most of these fire managers tell you they'd let the fire burn.

CURWOOD: Now, there are predictions that the burning continues until the snows. What areas will need help? Will need reinforcement, will need some kind of intervention to get regrowth going there, do you think?

EGAN: It really varies from state to state, but I know there are parts of Colorado, there are parts of Washington State where I'm based, there are lots of little valleys in western Montana where the fires have burned extremely hot. And what they do is, they go in and they want to reseed and get at least some grass, some foundation in there before the rains come next year. Because what can happen is, the fire burns right up to the snow, to the early winter. Then snows come. And then in the spring you have runoff. And all this water melts down the barren slope, and what it does is it takes away whatever topsoil is left. And it just rips it away. And then you have a compounded situation of all this mud going in silting up river valleys, causing an even larger problem to happen. So what they're going to do in some of these areas that are most vulnerable right now is going to try to reseed, just to put some grass down. Something that'll establish itself a little bit. But in areas where the soil has been hit by these superheated gases and they've just burned, there's basically nothing they can do. It's going to take several centuries of compost building up to build soil. They just can't do anything. It's huge.

CURWOOD: Tim Egan is a reporter with the Seattle Bureau of the New York Times. Thanks for taking this time with us, Tim.

EGAN: Well, thanks for having me. I appreciate it.



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