Preventing future fires

Larry Harrell lhfotoware at
Wed Jan 7 00:41:35 EST 2004

January 3, 2004  The Washington Times  Guest Editorial

Preventing tomorrow's fires

By Thomas Bonnicksen

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
    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
    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.

Comment by poster: Gee, what a novel idea to treat the disease instead
of throwing money at the symptoms. I'll be seeing those SoCal forests
in person in the next few weeks on an assignment down there. I'll be
sure to take pictures to show what a lack of forest management did.
Meanwhile, hundreds of thousands of dead trees are rotting and bark
beetles are still hungry.

Larry,   forest sculptor

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