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The Fires of Summer

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As the West burns, we continue to re-examine what we know about wildfires

What's this? We are now in our third summer since Bill Clinton left the White House and yet our western forests continue to burn.

During Clinton's last summer and fall in the presidency, the fires of 2000 seared forests in our seven Rocky Mountain states. That election year the political demagoguery burned as hot as the flames, blaming Clinton personally for the fires. One could almost envision the President furtively skulking through our mountains, drip torch in hand, secretly setting fires as he went.

The ridiculous notion that one can personify the cause of fire as the fault of a single individual may be politically profitable in the short run, as it was for some western Republicans in the November elections of 2000, but in the long term it is perilous, diverting our attention from the real causes of fires, and thus rendering our policy choices ever more difficult.

With George W. Bush in the White House, his political opposition has, thankfully, refused to blame him for the fires which, during his term, have already blackened four million acres in the Rocky Mountain states, with 640,000 acres burned this summer alone - more than half of which have been in Montana and Colorado. That political respite has given our elected representatives, fire managers, scientists and the public the opportunity to think thoughtfully about wildfire - its causes, purposes and possible prevention.

The public is beginning to consider, and perhaps understand, some of the real reasons fires generate: thousands of lightening strikes; high winds; a century of unwise fire suppression beginning in 1900; overgrazing which depletes under- grass, thus encouraging fires to rise; water diversions; dense and untreated forests; lack of moisture (this July Billings, Mont., received zero rainfall!); and indiscriminate logging of the largest fire-resistant trees.

Also, we simply must face the reality that we Montanans, we westerners, are responsible for many of the most deadly wildfires. At least one of the major Yellowstone Park fires of 1988 was caused by careless people. In the summer of 2000, six fires destroyed 170,000 acres and many homes in Montana. We now know that each of those fires was started by people: loggers, trailer home owners, a grain farmer, a person barbequing, and campers leaving fires unattended. 

We are also beginning to understand that many of our old beliefs about fire and its causes have been incorrect. Perhaps a prime example was the public's long love affair with the Forest Service's mascot of total fire suppression, Smokey Bear. That decades-long policy of dousing all natural fires as quickly as possible built up an enormous fuel base in our forests, resulting in many of the conflagrations in the years since.

Another mistaken policy which we seem to have trouble remembering is the concentrated logging of the public's largest trees deep within the interior, rather than appropriate and necessary logging and thinning closer to the towns and adjacent homes near the forest edge. To put lie to the mistaken policy that heavy logging prevents wildfire, we need look no further than the 1980s. That was the decade of both intense logging and massive fires. In 1988 a near-record 12 billion board feet were logged from the forests and in the years since we have experienced significant fire in nine million acres, much of it in the logged-over lands of that decade. We now know, or certainly should know, that when our lands are stripped of large, fire-resistant trees with tops, limbs, needles and waste left behind, the area becomes little more than kindling, fueling fires that rage across the landscape burning everything in its path, including our homes and buildings.

Westerners have a huge stake in the proper maintenance of our forested wild lands. We should encourage our members of Congress to codify the intent of the thoughtful ten-year fire management proposal which had been adopted by each of our western governors, Republicans and Democrats, just two years ago and then abandoned by the new chair of the governor's association, Montana's Judy Martz, at the urging of the Bush White House which has substituted it own legislation, Healthy Forests - a clever name for bad policy.

It is also clearly in our safety interest to heed the valued 20-year study of the U.S. General Accounting Office which found a solid connection between areas that had been overly logged and raging wildfires. The authors summarized the report with this statement: "The assertion has been made that we are getting more acres burned because we have reduced the timber harvest - the reverse, however, is true."

Here in this hottest and driest of Rocky Mountain summers we are learning a lesson: Wildfires are natural, very complex and not the fault of a single individual, certainly not George Bush or Bill Clinton.

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Author info

Rep. Pat Williams Rep. Pat Williams served nine terms as a U.S. Representative from Montana. After his retirement, he returned to Montana and is teaching at the University of Montana where he also serves as a Senior Fellow at the Center for the Rocky Mountain West and is Northern Director of Western Progress.

Tagged as:

forest fire, Bill Clinton, fire management, wildfires

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