Wildfire: Deadly and Beautiful


Photo: Mark Thiessen / National Geographic (Photo Gallery), reproduced with permission from NG

"Good" fires are ecologically crucial, clearing out dead brush and returning nutrients to the soil. Most of these ponderosa pines will survive, even thrive, after a low-intensity burn in South Dakota's Custer State Park. "Trees respond to fire," says Frank Carroll of the Forest Service, "like roses respond to pruning and fertilizer."

Summer is here - and in the West, along with hot weather comes the threat of wildfires. Last summer, during the Fire Season of 2007, the threat of wildfire became a nightmarish reality for my hometown of Santa Clarita, California - I could see fires burning a hill or two away from my backyard though thankfully they didn't get any closer to my home than that.

So with that as a backdrop, I read with great interest this article, "Under Fire," from National Geographic by Neil Shea and Mark Thiessen about the history of wildfires, how to fight them, and more importantly, how NOT to fight them:

"The more money we spend, the worse it gets," one fire scientist told me last summer. "If that's not a condemnation of our fire policies, I don't know what is." [...]

Historically, the American approach to wildfire has been to try to suppress it whenever and wherever it appears. This strategy is often traced to the great fires of 1910. That year, massive blazes across the West burned millions of acres and killed dozens of firefighters. Smoke drifted as far as New England, along with tales of tragedy and devastation. Gifford Pinchot, first director of the nascent U.S. Forest Service, was convinced that fire threatened the economic well-being of the nation, and as the man in charge of a huge, federally owned empire of forested land, he was in a position to turn his ideas into policy. He began a campaign to banish fire. [...]

But that strategy turned out to be flawed - extremely flawed:

By stamping out small fires and allowing fuel to stockpile, our policies ensured that when conditions were right, fire would return—bigger, hotter, more destructive than ever. And the right conditions could become routine. Most climate models now strongly suggest that the recent drought is not just a temporary phenomenon but part of a long-term drying trend made worse by global warming. There comes a point where no amount of money, no measure of heroism, is enough. Far from "wholly within the control of man," fire becomes unstoppable.


Photo: Mark Thiessen / National Geographic Magazine (Photo Gallery)

Using terrain as a tool, a firefighter shoots flares onto a hillside, hoping to create a chimneylike effect: As heat from this fire rises, it should draw flames upslope, away from unburned forest below. But fire doesn't always cooperate.

Links: Article at National Geographic Magazine | Photo Gallery | Interview with Mark Thiessen (how did he get into the middle of the fires? He went to firefighting school first!)

Note 1: National Geographic is one of my favorite magazines - I had quite a collection of them (until I, um, misplaced them in the Great Move of 2004 from San Francisco to LA). I'm thankful to National Geographic Magazine for their permission (finally!) to feature their articles and photos on Neatorama - thanks Marilyn!

Note 2: If your house is in a risk area, here's what you can do to prepare for a wildfire.


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Being a lifelong member of the population living next to or within the Sierras, it always makes my heart hurt to see the heavy dead load that litters the ground in most forested areas. You know that it's not a matter of if, but when all of it will go up in a blaze of glory. The frequent brush fires that you get on the valley floors are one thing, the majority of that vegitation will be back with in a couple of years. Forests just do not bounce back. The Crystal Peak fire occured way back in '92 and the mountainside above Verdi, CA is basically one big meadow where thousands of trees used to stand. Now the forest service is in the un-enviable position of trying to play catch up and there is just not enough time and man power to undo years of foolish management.
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