With ample fuel, small blazes can turn deadly fast

Daniel B. Wheeler dwheeler at teleport.com
Sat Jul 14 14:15:07 EST 2001

>From The Oregonian, July 12, 2001, p A1

With ample fuel, small blazes can turn deadly fast

	Dry, hot weather and decades of piled-up tinder in the nation's
forests have combined with this year's high-profile national
firefighting campaign to put more - and newer - firefighters closer to
more volatile Western wildfires than ever before, fire authorities
said Wednesday.
	And the most dangerous fires typically are not the large fires that
attract sophisticated teams of fire-behavior experts and weather
forecasters, but the smaller blazes that seem more innocuous than they
	No one knows exactly why four young firefighters died in Washington
on Tuesday. But it was a small, seemingly innocent fire that killed
them. The same sort of fire blew up and killed 14 firefighters -
including nine elite "hot shots" from Oregon - on Colorado's Storm
King Mountain in 1994.
	"What usually happens is a fairly small fire is just starting out and
picking up, and it catches people off-guard," said Richard Mangan,
retired chief of research at the U.S. Forest Service's fire laboratory
in Missoula, Mont., and author of a study on wildland firefighter
	The deaths of the four firefighters in northern Washington mean that
this year already is tied with 2000 as the deadliest wildfire year
since 1994 - and the fire season has barely begun.
	"If that type of fire behavior is occurring at this point in time,
things are only going to get worse as the season progresses," said
Robin DeMario, a Forest Service spokeswoman. "This is a heads-up for
the firefighting community."
	It also suggests that the $1.78 billion in federal fire money that
came after wildfires charged through Montana and Idaho last year, and
the nearly 7,000 new jobs in the firefighting ranks that money paid
for, cannot keep flames out of forests that are ready to burn.
	"We are not nearly as important in the world of fire suppression as
we think we are," said Don Despain, a U.S. Geological Survey
scientist. Despain studied fires that charred much of Yellowstone
National Park in 1988, despite the legions of firefighters and
military troops who fought them.
	Decades of aggressively extinguished fires, compounded by dry weather
in recent years, have changed the forest of the interior West - and
the way they burn. Trees once kept in check by natural fires have
grown more crowded, putting more than 20 million acres at risk for
what federal officials call catastro0phic wildfires.
	In few places are the risks as great as in Washington's Okanogan
National Forest, where the four firefighters died Tuesday.
	About 550,000 acres in the Okanogan and nearby Wenatchee national
forests once burned every few decades with creeping ground fires that
thinned flammable underbrush. Without those fires, about 85 percent of
the acreage has amassed unusually dense tinder that can burn hotter
and faster than before, the Forest Service said.
	"If you have greater fuel buildup, fires burn more vigorously and
gobble more acreage," said Mike Lohrey, the agency's acting fire
safety officer for Oregon and Washington. "We seem to have entered an
era of larger fires, burning more area."
	That may also be in part due to a series of dry years that have
brought earlier and longer fire seasons, Mangan said. "We're seeing
higher levels of fire danger and unpredictability over the last 10
years than we have before that, which adds a whole new set of
	Federal land agencies used their extra fire money to hire thousands
of new firefighters this season, including about one-third of the 300
firefighters working on the Wenatchee and Okanogan forests. Although
they completed all regular fire training, new firefighters may never
truly understand how fires can behave until they face flames on the
fire lines, officials said.
	"It takes a lot of time to get to the point where you're really savvy
to fire behavior," Mangan said. "Right now we have a lot of people new
to the business."
	Most wildland firefighters killed in the past decade have died when
flames whipped by high winds unexpectedly overran them, usually in the
early stages of a blaze, when communication can become frenzied and
confused. Investigations of fire deaths have shown that firefighters
anxious to attack fires sometimes stretch safety rules.
	Questions have emerged about whether federal agencies should battle
even those blazes - such as Washington's deadly fire - that threaten
no homes or other structures. National forests are now revising their
fire plans to specify when firefighters should or should not fight
fires, but most have not finished the plans yet.

COMMENT BY POSTER: For those on the eastern US and elsewhere, it may
be impossible to conceive of a firestorm in western forests.
Especially on the dry lands east of the Cascade Mountains, pine and
pitch-rich true firs can make a seemingly small fire turn to
conflagration proportions in a matter of minutes. The suspression of
fires over the past 120 years has increased dry fuels which result in
rapid burning. Add low-rainfall years, and you have a prescription for
fires to rival the Yellowstone fires. Add steep terrain where few camp
and no roads lead in or out, and what water that did fall flowed off
quickly. Finally, add an unattended campfire, and you have a
prescription for a wildfire that can create 80 mph winds that sends
sparks and burning brands ahead of it.

Firefighters have a pretty thankless job. They deserve more respect
than a few days of mourning after they're gone.

One way to decrease fire danger is to prune dead branches, and chip
excess shrubbery. Chips break down quickly, retain water, act as
forest fertilizer, and make a devastating fire less likely. Even
pruning dead branches and leaving them on the ground will decrease the
chances of a crown forest fire. Such work is very time consuming,
mildly dangerous, and expensive. But it results with better quality
timber, less fire danger, increased habitat for owls (including the
Northern Spotted owl) and is likely to increase bio-diversity. It
could even lead to more truffle production. <G>

Daniel B. Wheeler

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