- The Washington Times - Friday, January 2, 2004

In 2000, Americans were glued to their TVs as monster fires roared across the West. It happened again in 2001 and 2002. These horrific fires killed people, destroyed homes and wildlife habitat, stripped soil from watersheds, clogged streams and reservoirs with debris, and turned millions of acres into charcoal.

Again, this fall unmanaged forests and brush lands in Southern California fueled more monster fires that killed 26 persons, destroyed 739,597 homes and burned 740,000 acres.

Now, the aftermath includes more than a dozen killed in mudslides.

Where will the next monster fire hit?

At the top of the list is Southern California, where dead trees still cover the San Bernardino Mountains. The Sierra Nevada may also burn because years of controversy stopped thinning projects that could prevent a catastrophe. Unfortunately, most Western states are in jeopardy.

Will we take the action needed to protect lives and property from monster fires? Will we protect the forests that we enjoy so that future generations can enjoy them as well?

The answer is no, at least not so far.

We knew about the dangers facing the forests and brush lands in Southern California, but we did not act swiftly enough to prevent the loss of an entire forest — 474,000 acres — in the San Bernardino and San Jacinto mountains to the ravages of the western pine beetle, or the wildfires that followed in October 2003.

We also failed to prevent the chaparral fires that took so many lives and destroyed so many homes in San Diego County and elsewhere in Southern California.

The historic Healthy Forest Restoration Act of 2003, signed by President Bush in early December, came too late to prevent the recent fires but it will help prevent future disasters.

I worked in the San Bernardino Mountains with Forest Service professionals almost continuously in 2003. We knew that we faced a crisis and that dramatic action was needed to prevent a disaster. Not only were beetle-killed trees about to fall on people, houses, power lines and cars, but a catastrophic fire could sweep into communities from any direction at any time. We knew what had to be done.

However, the Forest Service was hampered in its efforts to prevent a disaster. They had too few people and too little money, and they faced too many restrictions to reduce fuels over a large enough area to decrease the fire threat significantly.

Sadly, the insect infestations and wildfires were predictable and preventable. We did not look after our forests. Meanwhile, trees grew and forests became overgrown and unhealthy.

In 1994, I conducted a workshop in which 27 specialists representing many interests and agencies came together at Lake Arrowhead to do something about the unnaturally thick forests in the San Bernardino Mountains.

We knew communities like Lake Arrowhead and others in the San Bernardino Mountains were in imminent danger. The workshop produced a report charting a course to improve the safety and health of forests surrounding these communities. Unfortunately, bark beetles got there before anyone took action to thin the forest.

We recommended a comprehensive and integrated fire protection program that included a fuels-management plan to thin the forest, creating strategic, park-like fuel breaks, and efforts to educate the public on structural modifications and landscape design.

In 1995, I conducted a similar study of brush lands that documented the severe fire hazard in San Diego County. Like the San Bernardino Mountains report, we had a plan for preventing catastrophic wildfires. Unfortunately, there was a failure to act.

There is no doubt that the recommendations in the 1994 and 1995 reports, if implemented when proposed, would have dramatically reduced the death and destruction caused by the horrific fires of 2003.

Enter today the Healthy Forest Restoration Act of 2003, which prophetically requires weighing the risk of action against the risk of inaction when making management decisions. Think of the terrible human, financial and ecological losses suffered in Southern California this year and weigh them against the minor risks of having used scientific management to prevent them.

We cannot put a price on lives lost and human suffering, which by itself justifies fire prevention. Economic losses from this year’s Southern California fires could be higher than $2.2 billion. Using the most comprehensive and expensive management methods, that is enough money to restore more than 7 million acres of chaparral to a more fire-resistant and natural condition, which is far more than is needed.

Similarly, that money could pay to remove most of the beetle-killed trees in Southern California and rebuild new fire-resistant forests that are more natural and sustainable than those that were lost.

This is far more money than taxpayers will bear. However, if private companies could harvest and thin only the trees required to restore and sustain a healthy, fire-resistant forest, it could be done. In exchange, companies would sell the wood and, thereby, significantly reduce public expenditures.

The problem is finding someone to buy the wood. That means the initial public expenditure will have to include subsidies to establish the infrastructure needed to make the restoration of fire-resistant forests financially feasible.

The inescapable choice is whether we will pay now for prevention or pay far more later to deal with disaster and its aftermath.

Thomas Bonnicksen is a professor of forestry at Texas A&M; University who has studied California forests for more than 30 years.

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