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Like gambling with wildfire

- The Washington Times - Monday, May 31, 2004

We face another serious fire season in 2004. Experts use words like "dire" and "grim" to describe what may happen if drought continues in the West.

Some people suggest a simple answer to the fire problem: create fuel breaks around communities.

While that seems a common-sense solution, as a fire ecologist and historian of America's forests, I know fuel breaks create a false sense of security without addressing the underlying problem.

Building a last line of defense while doing nothing to prevent the enemy -- in this case, high-intensity fire -- from amassing beyond that line will likely prove futile. As a primary safety measure against horrific fire, it may prove fatal.

Fuel breaks seldom work and cost too much to maintain. Fuel breaks are only effective if firefighters are on site and in force at the right time and under the right conditions to knock a blaze down. Even then, most fuel breaks are too narrow to stop a 200-foot wall of flame, 2,000-degree Fahrenheit temperatures, and flaming limbs launched a mile ahead of a raging wildfire.

Fires can jump eight-lane highways and other fuel breaks. The Cerro Grande Fire that left 400 families homeless in Los Alamos, N.M., in 2000 proved the point. It happened again in Southern California last year, and it happens throughout the West every year.

Though essential, fuel breaks and clearance around homes will never solve the fire problem. Once fires "crown" -- race across tree tops and reach extreme temperatures -- nothing but a thinned forest or favorable weather will control them.

We could make firefighting organizations nearly perfect and give them all the planes, engines, equipment and training possible. But the inescapable truth is our overgrown forests and brushlands are the real problem.

Despite recent devastation, there are organizations that want forests left alone and even effective clearing around houses has been blocked.

Just recently, the Sierra Club and its supporters in California defeated a bill to let homeowners clear a mere 300 feet around their homes. If activists won't allow people to protect their homes, it's no wonder they won't let foresters thin trees and remove enough fuel to help prevent monster fires and insects from destroying whole forests.

We have only two basic choices for dealing with our wildfire crisis.

First, we can acknowledge we need, live in and use our forests every day, and accept our responsibility to restore natural fire-resistant forests and brushlands to the uncluttered state that kept them healthy for thousands of years. This means removing only scientifically selected trees. A restored forest is the first and most important defense against wildfire.

Or, we can let our forests keep growing out of control, knowing the increased tree density is unnatural, caused by human neglect and will lead to huge fires that destroy wildlife habitat, burn homes, trigger mudslides and kill people.

Science shows there is no middle ground.

If we are to protect ourselves and our forests, we must see the big picture and restore entire forests.

Thomas M. Bonnicksen is the "father of restoration forestry" and author of "America's Ancient Forests" (John Wiley, 2000.). He is professor emeritus of forest science at Texas A&M University, visiting professor at the University of California-Davis, and visiting scholar at the Forest Foundation.