Forest Fire Hazards

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Naturalist Henry David Thoreau, though known as the Sage of Walden, accidentally, but carelessly, sparked a life-threatening fire that blighted 300 acres in 1844, while he was cooking fish in the Concord, MA woods.

No records can be found as to whether anyone was killed or injured in that fire.

Possibly the nation's worst fire was the Peshtigo, Wisconsin, forest fire in 1871, which killed 1,182 people as it roared over 1.2 million acres.

Fire is a frightening force. Fire eats oxygen. One can become disoriented with but a small reduction in oxygen. If you stand up in a room on fire, the heat may increase by 600 degrees, enough heat to melt your clothes or even your skin, according to the Federal Emergency Management Agency. The United States has the largest fire death rate of any industrialized country in the world. In fact, fire kills more Americans than all other natural disasters, according to the National Fire Protection Association. (This is mainly due to fires in the home, where there are about 6,000 fire deaths and 25,000 injuries by fire each year. Most are children and seniors.) Dozens of forest fire fighters die annually in their dangerous work.

Fire is not all bad. It can be a useful tool in some forest areas. Controlled burns are used in limited areas to allow regeneration of certain species of shade-intolerant trees. But wildfires in America, particularly in recent years, have been a scourge that has killed hundreds of people. In 2003 alone, thirty firefighters died in the flames.

In August 2002, during one of the most fierce fire seasons in recent history, President Bush launched his so-called Healthy Forests Initiative. It centered on reducing the risk of catastrophic and life-endangering fires. The aim was to thin dense undergrowth and brush, which is especially combustible.

The Government Accountability Office (GAO, formerly the General Accounting Office) calculates that about one in every three acres of National Forests is dead or dying, which has made the 155 National Forests very vulnerable to fires.

Fire Prevention or Eco-Plunder?

Recently, the Forest Service released its upgrade of the 1976 Forest Management Act, following years of work and public hearings.

As might well be expected, environmental activists began tearing their hair. "It rips the guts out of National Forest management plans," spouted the Natural Resources Defense Council. It "would open up public lands -- including old growth forests, roadless areas, and sensitive wildlife habitats -- to industry to log, drill, and build roads."

The Sierra Club chimed in, "The initiative is based on false assumptions that landscape-wide logging will decrease forest fires."

The mainstream media, often eager to take the environmentalist viewpoints, climbed on the bandwagon.

"President Bush can thin as many trees as he wants right now. He just can take a saw to the nation's environmental protections in the process," said the _Los Angeles Times_.

"Unfortunately, congressional discussions on the issues...have centered on Draconian proposals to undo crucial parts of the National Environmental Act," wrote the _Denver Post_.

The Sierra Club argued that the Healthy Forest Initiative "is contradicted by the general scientific consensus, which has found that logging can increase fire risk. [It] reveals the Administration's true goal, which is to use the forest fire issue to cut the public out of the public lands management decision-making process and to give logging companies virtually free access to our National Forests [a]nd accelerate aggressive 'thinning' across millions of acres of backcountry forests miles away from communities at risk to forest fires."

Fire's Deadly Potential

So, the environmental lobbyists apparently are willing to fiddle with Forest Service practices while citizens and their homes burn. They surely must be aware -- without admitting it -- that even a small fire can spread over hundreds of acres in a couple of hours.

For example, a campfire ignited 764 acres of the Manistee National Forest, burning the entire windswept area in four hours on April 14, 2003.

"A higher number of more intense, destructive, and costly wildfires is likely to occur during the next decade on wild lands throughout the West," the GAO reported as early as 1999.

The 1999 GAO report highlighted nearly 40 million acres at risk for catastrophic wildfire, with subsequent reports indicating the acreage at risk nearer 80 million acres. After the unprecedented wildfires of 2000 in the northern Rockies, and fire-related fatalities in Washington and California in 2001, a national wildfire plan is now in full-scale implementation. The 2002 wildfire season began at a record pace, with over 3.5 million acres burned, over 1,000 structures consumed, and several fatalities.

Better Stewards

While wildfire is spectacular, the phenomenon is a complex event, not well understood by the general public and not easily covered by reporters with daily deadlines and a willingness to bend an ear to environmentalist ravings.

While environmental zealots fret about logging, timber harvesting today on federal lands provides less than 3% of national use -- but it still carries the potential to symbolically undermine environmentalists' control of resources. Under the old system, harvest management plans took years to finish. The new systems, which environmentalists grit their teeth about, let local managers use new techniques as conditions require. With local managers in control, the environmental lobbyists in Washington will find it harder to wield influence.

Stewards of forest lands, particularly on industry woodlands, have become ever more conscientious in preserving and managing our forests. Admittedly, this wasn't always so. When European settlers waded ashore in North America, timberlands covered such vast swathes of the country that trees seemed inexhaustible. The axes felled hundreds of thousands of trees, and much of the original forests were cut. But a second-growth forest sprung to life to serve a breadth of purposes from timber production to recreation.

Environmentalists are not the only ones who have learned something over the decades about how to manage and regrow forests for future use, but their insistence on being the sole masters of our trees -- and preventing removal of all old growth -- may subject many people to the far deadlier master that is fire.

Tait Trussell won a Loeb Award "for distinguished reporting of business and financial news" and a Benjamin Fine award for columns on education. He was vice president of the American Enterprise Institute for Public Policy Research (AEI) and served on the Bicentennial Commission on the U.S. Constitution.