Time to Burn

Is the Lone Fire a preview of California-style infernos to come?

Given the slow growth and reseeding of ponderosa pine, the pine forest atop Four Peaks, for example, may take that long to regenerate--if at all.

To prevent such catastrophes, Covington believes that most forests need to be thinned mechanically to remove the smaller-diameter trees and brush and then burned and replanted in grass, and most environmentalists and land management agencies agree with him. It is a dauntingly expensive and time-consuming proposition.

Indeed, during the 1980s, the land management agencies realized that they had to introduce controlled fires back into the landscape to reduce the fuel-loading problems. Their "fire control officers" became "fire management officers."

As an indicator of how effective prescribed burning is, consider that the 5,000-acre island of unburned vegetation within the Lone Fire perimeter mostly consisted of land that had been deliberately burned within the last three years by the Forest Service. The vegetation in the earlier burns is already thick enough to provide wildlife food and cover, but thin enough to slow or stop the big flames.

In Arizona, 100,000 to 150,000 acres are treated this way every year as the land management agencies try to run a race against wildfire. But the practice has its problems.

Weather conditions have to be perfect--moist enough, cool enough--to keep the fire from escaping. The wind has to be blowing in the right direction because smoke from the prescribed fires throws a lot of particulate matter into the atmosphere, compromising air quality. Under many weather conditions, smoke in the forests follows the watersheds--the Salt and Verde rivers, for example--right down to Phoenix where it sits.

Before they can burn, the agencies must apply for the appropriate permits with the Environmental Protection Agency and negotiate aesthetic as well as other community issues regarding smoke.

"The other problem is the public's attitude toward smoke," says Sharon Galbreath of the Sierra Club. "The very fires that are best for the ecosystem--slow broadcast burns--are the ones that create the most smoke. The burns that are the best for the environment are the ones the public hates most."

Not only does prescribed burning run afoul of the Clean Air Act, but it also collides with the Wilderness and Endangered Species acts. There is little or no prescribed burning allowed in wilderness areas--which the Lone Fire engulfed, although natural fires are allowed to burn.

"Wilderness recognizes that burning will happen," says Pete Wynell, a wilderness manager at Tonto National Forest. "It's a natural thing. The question is: Was this a natural burning or unnatural burning? Have we changed the base rules of the game with this fuel loading? And was it started by nature or not?"

And although environmentalists claim that the ESA does not forbid burning in spotted-owl habitats, the Fish and Wildlife Service is still slow to allow it. There were two owl nests within the perimeter of the Lone Fire, and both areas were totally destroyed by the fire.

"We couldn't prescribe burn there," says Linny Warren. "I've got burns that we tried to burn up there, right where this took place. As you know, around those parking areas, if you don't prescribe burn, someone's going to light a fire that'll get away. That's exactly what happened."

While land managers and environmentalists and legislators quibble about environmental policy, the forest burns down.

"If you want a metaphor," says Stephen Pyne, "that's it."
"Mother Nature didn't pay a hell of a lot of attention to the EPA, did it?" says Ron Moody.

Between 1930 and 1980, the number of wildland fires in Arizona and New Mexico doubled.

Between 1989 and 1995, the number of acres burned each year in Arizona more than doubled, according to statistics provided by the Southwest Area Coordination Center, which pools the fire data and firefighting resources of the state and federal land management agencies in Arizona and New Mexico. Except for the wet years of 1991 and 1992, the charred acreage rose steadily from 104,797 acres in 1989 to 243,536 acres last year. Already in 1996, as of May 26, more than 87,700 Arizona acres had already burned. During most years, the fire season would barely be getting started by that date.

The cost is hard to track; because of the various agency accounting methods--and a bunker mentality that refuses to give up the information--there seems to be no way of tabulating the overall price tag of fire suppression. One Forest Service publication cites a 1990 figure of $800 million. And the fires have gotten bigger since then.

In Arizona, the first of the big blazes was the 1990 Dude Creek Fire just below the Mogollon Rim, east of Payson, which burned 24,000 acres, destroyed 67 summer homes and killed six firefighters.

A complex of simultaneous 1994 fires burned more than 36,000 acres near Kingman, including 5,000 acres of old-growth Joshua trees.

"Now, those trees withstood the vagaries of nature for 200 years," says Jeff Whitney, "and we lost them in an afternoon. Things have changed: You've got red brome grass, you've got cheat grass, and you've got careless people."

Last year's biggest Arizona fires burned 23,000 acres in north Scottsdale, another 22,000 in Tonto National Forest, 17,000 in Mohave County and 10,000 in Graham County.

It's the fires to come that may be most dangerous, especially if they burn like the Lone Fire.

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