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WILDFIRE ON THE UINTAS!

THE EAST FORK FIRE

The East Fork fire is out. A little over 14,000 acres was within the burn area with a suppression cost of 13.2 million dollars!! Close to 1,000 fire fighters were camped on the forest! I intend no disrespect to the fire fighters, whose injuries, thankfully, were minor and who do a remarkable job, and did here as well, of protecting structures and people. Few have ever worked as hard under as trying conditions as wildland fire fighters. But if the truth be known, it was not they, the tankers, the helicopters, or the surprising fuss of some local media about the devastating fire that put it out. As usual, the weather changed and the fire simply found nowhere else to go. I know this from experience, having spent many a day as a seasonal Forest Service wilderness ranger back in the early 1970s ordered to fight fires. Fires of this magnitude are put out by the weather.

That said, it was not at all surprising to talk to many a Forest Service person privately and jointly commiserate how this fire should have been allowed to burn! Although some predicted that it could have been catastrophic, that was never likely, given the fire history/ecology of the area: elevation, summer weather patterns (even in this insufferably hot and dry year the Uintas, particularly in this portion of the range, eventually generate cooling, humid thunderstorms), vegetation types and the steep, up-and-down topography.

It wasn't allowed to burn for two primary reasons:

  1. no wildland fire plan is in place for the area-- a serious, but not unusual, shortcoming of the Forest Service; and
  2. it was human-started on the Boy Scout camp, likely by Boy Scouts.

It is also important to understand that 14,000 acres did not burn up. The fire boundary was set at 14,000 acres with burn patterns typical of fires in the persistent lodgepole pine types--intense crown fire, sending embers far in front of the fire itself in places, smoldering in others, with large patches not even touched by fire. One of the stunning photos during the fire, and not at all unusual, was of a large bull moose calmly foraging while trees flamed in the background with other parts of the forest untouched. That was ecologically real. The "calm hysteria" and all of the para-military lingo of fire attack has no real ecological grounding.

The fact that it was ignited by young kids is tragic. It should not have been and we hope the Boy Scouts are properly prosecuted. But even the greater tragedy is that, had lightning ignited this fire in this place, the attack would have been the same.

Now the rehab starts. Most will center on rehabilitating the fire camp area and the dozens and dozens of miles of fire lines (hardly lines, many were put in by bulldozers and all are bulldozer size.) In other words, rehabilitation is required for the impacts of attacking the fire rather than the fire itself, which simply did nothing to the forest that the forest didn't need and beg for, in its own ecological way. And just- below- the- surface- talk is already emerging-- let's get on with s alvage timber harvesting in the East Fork fire area!

THE WEST ABLAZE?

The headlines blare, politicians, of course, lecture, and the ecologically illiterate whine that the West is doomed with fire. The blame game starts with some politicos, some in the Forest Service who deviously and shamelessly blame conservationists, and conservationists blaming homeowners in the forest, motorized forest users and timber harvesting as the primary reason there are so many fires in the West this year.

fire.gif (28513 bytes)Stop! Of course, the West is not ablaze--a tiny, tiny, tiny portion is on fire. A tiny, tiny, tiny portion of our National Forests, BLM, state lands and National Parks are on fire. To be precise, as of 6 August some 4.4 million acres of wildland fires are burning nationwide, including 1.2 million in AK and hundreds of thousands in non-Western states. This would only be about 8% of Utah if all of the fires were here!

In Utah about 233,000 acres have burned this summer. Contrary to TV news claims that the state is ablaze, this accounts for .4% of the state s acreage!

And within those fires the burning is rarely a uniformed torching of a forest--patches burn, patches don't, patches smolder. The talking right now, maybe intentionally, is set to bypass one another and spin a story.

Fires are burning in already cut-over areas, in areas that have not been cut, in areas heavily roaded, in areas lightly roaded and without roads. Many are in areas densely populated by homes and summer cabins, others vacant. Many have been started by humans, many by lightning. Forests burn, particularly in the West, and, not at all surprisingly, where they are burning this year, last year, and the year before. The likelihood of those fires becoming what they have become this year (and the last few years) is a function of a prolonged, widespread drought as well as a longer summer season that starts earlier and ends later.

Western forests burn. They "always" have. The lodgepole pine forests on the Uintas, for example, likely burned every 80-150 years, sometimes less, sometimes more, dependent upon drought oscillations, storm frequencies, elevation and a host of local conditions. Old lodgepole forests burned; young, very dense forests burned, again dependent upon various conditions. The other common denominator with this burning, along with the prolonged and severe drought the West is facing, is the effective fire prevention initiated by the Forest Service for the better part of this century. Many Western forests have become more volatile simply because natural fire removes the "fines," the thickets of small trees, branches, underbrush, dead branches and the like making the forest more resistant to larger crown fires. But in most lodgepole forests, for example, natural fires routinely removed large trees as well with stunning crown fires simiar to the East Fork fire. They would burn with vigor, throwing embers in some cases 1/2 mile in front of the fire. But eventually, weather, change in vegetation, winds or arriving at a patch that had previously burned caused the fire to settle, smolder and extinguish. This is an age old dance. Fire is every bit a part of a forest as is a tree! In lodgepole forests the connection is as deep and broad as the life of the forest itself-- in some lodgepole pine forests, resin that seals the tiny seed in the cone is only broken under intense heat. The lodgepole pine seedling needs mineral- based soils with minimal downfall to start. As the forest ages, branches fall, trees tumble and criss-cross, lightning strikes and the dance begins anew. Commercial timber harvesting does not mimic fire patterns simply because fires burn almost randomly across a landscape. In some cases, they smolder and take the ground cover. In other cases, they roar up a tree, then into a patch of trees, the wind shifts, sometimes caused by the fire itself, and the flames run up against rock ledges, roar up a steep slope to cool subalpine forests, or can't get across the wide meadow lands and streams that flow off the high peaks of the Uintas. The fire has now here to go. Small, sometimes large stands of trees are left untouched. No roads, no bridges, no saws, no culverts, no clear cuts, no slash piles.

But we have roaded much of the Western forests. We have put our houses, summer cabins, campsites, resorts, and resort towns in the middle of this fire we call a forest. Thus active management with all of its pitfalls and guesswork is necessary in some places and under some conditions. But our movement into these places has been rapid and without ecological thought. Therein lies the conflict with the present drought oscillation, which many say will last for a number of years to come in the Interior West and may, in fact, be part of a much broader climatic change, also created by our heavy hand on this planet.

Rather than blame conservationists or the Forest Service, it is far wiser to look to the kind of management that minimizes threats in areas already developed and to leave the so-called forest primeval, our wildernesses and roadless lands, for example, to match wits with fire. On balance the evidence suggests the more we develop forest landscapes, the more likely we increase the fire threat. The more fires threaten, enhancing both our fear and reaction, we once again act with arrogant, ecological illiteracy!

To this extent the proposal by a number of Western politicos, some who have been conservation friends, to increase timber harvesting and exempt that from many of our environmental laws is not only on the wrong track but dangerously wrong.

Indeed, maybe we can prevent forest fires by removing most of the wood from a forest and altering our weather patterns so lightning is a thing of the past. Or maybe we can watch the fire and forest, the wind and lightning spiral smoke thousands of feet into the air. We can stand in awe to imagine the fresh air filling in at the bottom of the column of smoke, bringing fresh oxygen to push the fire onward and upward as powerful boiling hot winds flow in front of the fire, drying the forward fuel and priming it for the flame.

No city, town, hamlet, home, or cabin owner should ever face this. We should manage our forests to assure those places are not threatened and certainly we should be smart enough to make sure no such places are from now on put in our forests.

For the forest this means a vigorous life. It means a future.

Dick Carter


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