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Natural Fire

Gregg Easterbrook's latest post is an attempt to defend the Healthy Forests Initiative. His point here is to challenge "enviros" who think that a totally hands-off approach to forest management is the answer. In passing, he also lays some blame on people who choose to live in fire-prone areas -- the growing urban-wildland "intermix" that puts more and more people and homes at risk of fire -- while effectively taking that phenomenon as given. He goes on to state that, since intermix is a reality, simply allowing fires to burn naturally is unacceptable, as it puts people at risk. The alternative is some sort of environmental management, and Easterbrook thinks (incorrectly, in my previously-stated view) that Healthy Forests is a step in the right direction, in part because it commits us to management of wildlands rather than hands-off treatment.

This argument is ignoring two crucial bits of information: 1) not all fire-prone areas have become intermix areas, and 2) most "enviros" that I've heard do not oppose management-intensive fire policy in intermix areas. The backcountry -- areas far from human habitation -- still exists in many places. In the backcountry, it's possible to take a more hands-off approach. Indeed, such an approach would save money while reducing the risk that a fire will get a running start in areas where access is poor and hence firefighting is difficult, before roaring into the intermix. The converse situation -- in which backcountry is a tinderbox -- was created by fire-suppression management done at great expense in the backcountry. The general class of "hands-off" environmental proposals are focussed on the backcountry. They recognize that backcountry fire is less of a problem because human intrusion into the backcountry increases the fire hazard by 1) putting more people and livelihoods in risky locations, 2) creating more sources of ignition, and 3) making fuels more fire-prone, by exposing them to the drying rays of the sun (as occurs along roads) and changing the fuel composition (as when traditional logging leaves behind piles of slash and underbrush).

The Healthy Forests Initiative is, however, a backcountry plan. The timber companies who will do the work of thinning want access to the backcountry, because that's where the good timber is. "Enviros" generally agree that mechanical thinning should be focussed on the areas immediately around settlement, yet Democratic Senators had to do some arm twisting to get their version of the bill to mandate that a whopping 50% of thinning would be done in these critical intermix areas. The administration has explicitly defended the idea that thinning must be done in the backcountry, a proposal that doesn't square with Easterbrook's use of the problems of the intermix as a rationale for Healthy Forests.

On a slightly different topic, Easterbrook says:
After loggers come through there is a big, denuded open field. A big, denuded open field is also what is left after a wildfire. Better to arrive at the big, denuded open field artificially, avoiding death and destruction while creating logging jobs--since the Douglas fir will be just as happy to grow in the big open field regards of whether nature's fire or people's saws cleared the land.

It seems that Easterbrook has already forgotten a point he made earlier in his article -- that a natural fire regime, and certainly a managed fire regime based on controlled burning, does not leave a big, denuded field (at least in forested areas). It generally (though it's important to remember the exceptions lest we get too carried away by an enthusiasm for frequent controlled burning) results in parkland -- that is, land with little understory but numerous larger trees. Those larger trees are the first to go when loggers come in. Indeed, they have to be explicitly instructed to clear out the understory that presents the real fire danger.

From a hazard-reduction perspective, he's right that there's not a lot of difference between a field cleared by an all-consuming fire and one cleared mechanically. But from the ecological perspective -- which he invokes with his reference to the infant Douglas fir -- there is a big difference. Logging reduces fuel by taking it away. Fire reduces fuel by reverse photosynthesis, breaking the fuel down and redistributing its constituent nutrients. Traditional farming practices often include burning the stubble left after harvest both because that's easier than mechanical removal and because it returns nutrients to the soil. Further, mechanical clearing doesn't trigger many of the fire-dependent seeding mechanisms -- like the resin-sealed pinecones described earlier in Easterbrook's post -- that are necessary for healthy regrowth.


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