If anyone comes to your attention who is interested in "fighting forest fires" with a cloudbuster, please send them a copy of this article.
Wild and Prescribed Fire in Forests of the Intermountain West
by Joy Belsky
The paradigm on forest fires is shifting from one of fire as a destructive force, to one of fire as a regenerative force. Although most forest scientists have made this shift, most forest managers in state and federal agencies have not. They are still attempting to suppress fires in wilderness and roadless areas and to halt the natural cycle of renewal and regrowth in forests damaged by past fire suppression.
In order to encourage the US Forest Service and other agencies to adopt guidelines to fit our new understanding of fire in forested ecosystems of the Intermountain West, the Oregon Natural Resources Council (ONRC) has prepared its own fire policy. We are distributing it to forest activists to encourage them to begin the process of educating the general public.
Over a hundred years of logging, grazing, fire suppression, road-building, and development have resulted in widespread fragmentation and degradation of the magnificent coniferous forests of the Intermountain West. Many of these forests are recognized by the scientific community as being critically destabilized. Still, significant areas, including wilderness, roadless areas, and moist forests, remain relatively unchanged.
. .Originally, most Ponderosa Pine and mixed-conifer forests of the Intermountain West were open and park-like, with large, majestic trees underlain by dense grass swards. These low- and mid-elevation forests were shaped by milennia of recurrent forest fire, which helped maintain the forests' ecological integrity by reducing tree densities, controlling forest pests, and releasing a steady supply of nutrients into the soil. Many of the wildlife species in these and Western forests evolved with fire-return intervals as short as 7-30 years and are dependent on the conditions created by fire for regeneration, rapid growth, food, and shelter.
Due to nearly a century of active fire prevention, fire-fighting, and livestock grazing, which eliminates the fine fuels necessary to carry low-intensity surface fires, ever greater numbers of tree seedlings and saplings have survived to maturity. Forests that were once open and park-like due to periodic thinning by low-intensity ground fire now develop into dense thickets. During dry seasons and prolonged drought, these trees become stressed, limbs fall to the ground, and trees die. Consequently, dead woody debris accumulates and forests become increasingly prone to intense fire. Without periodic fire to reduce this fuel load and limit tree numbers, species composition of the forests changes from dominance by fire-tolerant, sunlight-loving species such as Ponderosa Pine and Western Larch, to dominance by fire-sensitive, shade-tolerant species such as Douglas-fir and true firs. These changes have created conditions in which many of the original park-like forests have been converted into dense, fire-prone, and increasingly disease- and insect-prone stands.
Nevertheless, many forests in the region have not been significantly affected by recent changes in the fire regime. Riparian forests and wetter forests on north-facing slopes and at higher elevations traditionally experienced fewer fires. And forest types such as high-elevation Lodgepole Pine and Engelmann Spruce-Subalpine Fir have always developed into dense flammable forests, which were periodically consumed by stand-replacing fires.
Because of drought, high tree densities, high fuel loads, and the loss of a mosaic of burned and un-burned forest stands, low-elevation forests and those on south-facing slopes are now more vulnerable to destructive fire, insects, and disease than they were formerly The Oregon Natural Resources Council (ONRC) advocates that land managers initiate measures that mimic Nature in reducing fuel loads, so as to return forests to their pre-Euro-American-settlement densities and fire regimes. These activities include a let-bum policy in some areas.
Fire prevention should not be a goal of forest management in the Intermountain West except when extraordinary ecological values are at stake. Since fire is an inevitable and ecologically essential component of forest ecosystems, managers should focus on restoring historical fire regimes.
Fire suppression activities should be conducted only when absolutely necessary and with utmost care for the long-term integrity of the ecosystem.
* Fire suppression should be conducted only where irreplaceable ecological values (e.g. rare forest types or a major portion of the population of an endangered species) are at stake, or in areas that should be protected until prescribed burning can reduce excess fuels.
* Fire suppression should not be allowed in wilderness, wild and scenic rivers, or roadless regions, unless these areas have irreplaceable natural values and are scheduled for prescribed burning.
* Fires should not be actively fought where nearby natural fire barriers such as bodies of water or rocky ridges are likely to extinguish the fire.
Joy Belsky is the staff ecologist at Oregon Natural Resources Council, 5825 North Greely, Portland, OR 97217 USA.