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


Air Date: Week of

In this traditionally dry late summer season, federal land managers out west are hoping to prevent the huge wildfires that plagued much of the region this past decade. One of their strategies is to set more "controlled burns" than ever before which is a big change from past practice, when logging was used to rid forest of potential tinder. Jyl Hoyt, from member station KBSU in Boise, Idaho accompanied one forest service crew on a recent prescribed burn and prepared this report.


RUDOLPH: This is Living on Earth. I'm John Rudolph, sitting in for Steve Curwood. In the western US, late July and August is the traditional dry season, a time of year when huge tracts of land are especially susceptible to destructive wildfires. This year Federal land managers have decided to fight fire with fire, in an attempt to curb the blazes that have plagued the region this past decade. The increased use of controlled or prescribed burns is a big change from past practice, when logging was the main technique for ridding the woods of potential tinder. Jyl Hoyt from member station KBSU in Boise, Idaho, accompanied one Forest Service crew on a recent prescribed burn.

(Kettles rattling; voices)

HOYT: Dirty patches of snow still spot the mountainside here in the Boise National Forest in south central Idaho, as 8 forest service workers, dressed in canary colored fire retardant clothes pull gasoline tanks from a truck.

(Metal on metal; gasoline spilling)

HOYT: They fill hand torches with fuel as team leader Irene Saffra measures the humidity, then radios a nearby helicopter crew.

(Voice on radio) SAFFRA: I don't think it would hurt to let the humidity drop a little bit, Terry.

TERRY: Okay. We'll give you about 20 here on the ground, then we'll lift off and come your way.

(Fire crackling; voices)

HOYT: The crew heads up the hill with lit torches, setting fire to piles of brush. The Forest Service's Frank Carroll stands on the edge of this 300- acre burn, watching the slow-moving fire kill lots of little fir trees.

CARROLL: Which is what we want it to do. The fir trees were not here for 10,000 years, and now they are because of the exclusion of fire for so long. And so by putting fire back into the environment, we're now going back through and doing what Nature used to do as a matter of course, which is killing these little trees. We want to kill most of them, leaving the pine trees to grow and prosper.

(Fire crackling)

HOYT: Mr. Carroll says Western Ponderosa pine forests, those most valued by loggers, started to decline around the turn of the century, when the government forced local tribes, like the Shoshone and Bannock, onto reservations. That prevented them from starting fires as they'd done for centuries.

CARROLL: The Indians used fire for 70 different documented purposes. Fire was a common tool among all of the tribes.

HOYT: But fire was considered an enemy by the US government, which ultimately began putting out all forest and range fires. To protect livestock grazing, and to leave more trees for loggers. That worked for a while. But without small, regular fires to cleanse the forest, bugs attack trees. And infested forests became tinder boxes that ignited into huge blazes in national parks, forest, and range lands.

(Fire crackling)

HOYT: Last year, more than 6 million acres burned: a symptom, says Frank Carroll, of an overall health crisis on Federal lands.

CARROLL: Everybody has to face reality about that. Something is broken, and people broke it. It wasn't one agency. It wasn't one group of evil little people hiding in a dark room someplace. It was a whole culture deciding that they didn't want fire here any more, and so they kept fire out for 100 years through various methods.

HOYT: The move to bring back controlled burns is part of a radical change in priorities at the US Forest Service. It's been brewing for some time, but came to a head with the appointment this past winter of the new Forest Service chief, Mike Dombeck. Mr. Dombeck says on his watch, the Agency's top priority will switch from harvesting trees to maintaining the overall health of forest ecosystems. Controlled burns, he says, will be returned to the Forest Service tool kit, alongside logging and thinning.

DOMBECK: I think what's changing is the balance in those programs. The important thing is that we use all the tools, and a fire is one of those tools that we have in the tool kit to maintain forest health.

HOYT: Mr. Dombeck says that new approach should save taxpayers a lot of money, too.

DOMBECK: The cost of dealing with an escaped fire can be many, many times higher than dealing with a prescribed burn. For example, sometimes we can do a prescribed burn for somewhere from, say, $15 to $50 an acre.

HOYT: While the average cost of fighting a wildfire is $1,000 an acre, and as much as $4,000 an acre where there are homes nearby. The Forest Service plans to do controlled burns on 3 million acres of Federal land by the year 2003. That makes the timber industry nervous. Loggers worry some prescribed burns might go awry and burn up valuable timber. As he sits in the glass-walled high-rise headquarters in Boise, Boise Cascade executive Doug Bartel says that judicious cutting can be just as effective as prescribed burning in improving forest health.

BARTEL: And we're certainly not advocating that the Federal timber sale program should be returned to the level that it was 10 years ago. But it should be well beyond what it is today, so that forest planners can again use logging as a tool.

HOYT: Many loggers say they can improve the ecosystem by thinning and logging, without the risk of prescribed burns.

(Wind chimes)

HOYT: For example, smoke from a fire could exceed air quality standards.

(Wind chimes)

HOYT: Smoke from forest fires already bothers people in Idaho City, a small mountain town an hour's drive north of Boise.

THIBODEAU: Some years the smoke has been so bad it's really hard on people with asthma and bronchitis, and even people without it are choking.

HOYT: Joan Thibodeau takes a break from gardening to roll a cigarette.

THIBODEAU: Well, it's like there's enough natural fires without them going in and starting fires purposely that then escape and become widespread fires.

HOYT: The Forest Service says none of the fires in the Idaho district have gotten out of control. But they admit others have.


HOYT: Prescribed burning is not an exact science, says John McCarthy of the Idaho Conservation League, as he walks along the Boise River. But he and other environmentalists strongly endorse it as a way to restore healthy forests, which also protects plants, animals, and nearby communities like Idaho City.

McCARTHY: And fire is really the tool to restructure the forest to a way that was pretty close to the way it was when we first settled the West. And doing that, we get a forest that can withstand wildfires and can function in a way that really can work on its own without always having to have the heavy hand of man.

(Helicopter whirring)

HOYT: Up at the controlled burn site, a helicopter drops ping pong balls filled with flammable fertilizer that ignite after hitting the ground. But the fire is moving slowly along the snow-packed earth. Irene Saffra radios her colleague to suggest they try again on a drier day.

(Helicopter, crackling flames)

SAFFRA: They may be able to get a few jackpots. There's just a lot of green grass in here, so it's not carrying all that well.

(Crackling continues)

HOYT: Getting this fire to burn on damp ground will be much easier than turning around a century-old policy of suppressing fire on Federal lands.

(Voices over a radio; flames)

HOYT: It likely will take longer than the 4 years this administration has to make forests healthy again, and bringing fire back to the forests will challenge land managers into the next century. For Living on Earth, I'm Jyl Hoyt in Boise, Idaho.



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