- The Washington Times - Tuesday, September 24, 2002

In short order, the U.S. Congress is expected come up with a plan to deal with Western wildfires. The plan would be a compromise between President Bush's Healthy Forests Initiative which represents a real effort to address the problem and several variations on the Sierra Club's "Community Protection Fire Plan," which would create fuelbreaks around forest communities.
There are two problems with this idea: (1) it won't stop wildfires; and (2) it won't protect forest communities. In fact, it reminds me of the walled cities of Medieval Europe. "Zones" of protection, where most of the trees and brush have been removed, supposedly would keep out the enemy fire the same way moats or high walls were supposed to keep out enemy armies during the Middle Ages.
Of course, people abandoned walled cities when they found that a determined enemy laid waste to the surrounding countryside before breaking through and annihilating the population. Wildfires behave in much the same way. The reality is that there isn't any substitute for fixing the real problem: "No-cut" policies and total fire suppression have created forests that are dense, overgrown, brush-and-tree tinderboxes where humans are unwelcome and catastrophic fire is inevitable. We have to restore our forests to their natural, historical fire resistance.
But before we can do that, we have to overcome public relations efforts designed to appeal to the public's understandable desire to protect homes and lives. Variations of the Sierra Club's plan won't restore forests to their historical magnificence, will do little to protect people, homes or wildlife, and will ensure the destruction of our forest watersheds where more than 75 percent of all drinking water is produced. This approach also would use up funding that ought to be spent thinning entire forests so that they are more natural and less combustible.
A thinned section of forest around a community is only valuable if there are firefighters deployed in the break who can attack the fire when it enters the area, drops to the ground, and moves along the forest floor. If no one is present to fight the fire in the break, fire behavior studies show the fire actually will accelerate through the cleared space at ground level rather than through tree crowns, as in thick and overgrown forests and erupt out the other side. Such community protection zones won't protect anything unless they are fully manned by firefighters at precisely the right time.
Even then, a catastrophic fire, roaring through hundreds of square miles of unthinned, overgrown forest at super-high temperatures is no respecter of defensible space. Firebrands burning debris launched up to a mile in advance of the edge of a wildfire, will destroy homes and communities no matter how much cleared space surrounds them. In fact, the Los Alamos Fire of 2000 a manmade fire that got out of hand burned many homes while sparing the surrounding thinned trees and other vegetation. The reason: Catapulted embers landed on roofs.
Besides, forest communities are spread out, with homes and businesses scattered over huge areas. It would be impractical, if not impossible, to create an effective thinned "zone" to encompass an area so large.
Worst of all, the "protection zone" idea doesn't do anything about the damage wildfires do to our precious watersheds. Forests, chiefly those in remote canyons and valleys, produce most of the water stored in reservoirs and aquifers. Healthy trees promote groundwater absorption, and slow snowmelt so water districts further downstream can handle it. Wildfires burn these areas and compromise water production, soil is washed away by the ton, and underground aquifers aren't replenished when baked surface soils become water repellent and virtually impervious. The "protection zone" idea does nothing to address this problem.
Thinning and restoring the entire forest is the only way to protect communities and our critical water sources. This is what the restoration plan offered by President Bush would help do. On the other hand, a fortress mentality based on unscientific ideas is precisely the wrong way to approach the crisis of monster fire that is destroying our national forests. It didn't serve us in the Dark Ages, and it won't serve us now.

Thomas M. Bonnicksen is a historian of North American forests and the "father" of "restoration forestry." He is a professor of forest science at Texas A&M; University, and the author of America's "Ancient Forests" (John Wiley, 2000.)

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