Fire Fight

With forests burning, U.S. officials are clashing with environmentalists over how best to reduce the risk of catastrophic blazes

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Kate Klein parks her U.S. Forest Service pickup truck along a muddy dirt road and climbs up a steep, rocky outcrop through a ghostly stand of burned ponderosa pines. Her boots sink into soot and ash. It is spring in the Apache-Sitgreaves National Forests in eastern Arizona and new grasses and seedlings should be turning the earth green. But from the top of the hill, she looks out over black trees as far as the eye can see, the remains of one of the largest wildfires in Arizona’s history.

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Klein, a 49-year-old district ranger with the Forest Service, had spent the better part of a decade trying to prevent a fire here (about 130 miles north of Tucson’s June 2003 Aspen Fire, the first major blaze of the season) or at least minimize its effects. The 616,000 acres of the Black Mesa District under her care had long been a powder keg, she says, “a disaster waiting to happen,” with too many trees per acre, too much deadwood littering the ground and everything made incendiary by years of drought. She came to believe that the only way to avoid catastrophic fires was to thin the forests through commercial logging, a process that would reduce what foresters call the “fuel load” and slow a fire’s spread, giving firefighters a better chance of stopping it.

From 1996 to 1999, Klein and her staff studied the likely impact of logging on a 28,000-acre tract about six miles southwest of Heber-Overgaard, a mountain community of nearly 3,000 people. They had warned that a big fire could roar out of the forest and threaten Heber-Overgaard and nearby communities, places where more and more vacationers and retirees have built homes. “But when we talked to these people about thinning,” she recalls, “most of them opposed it, because they moved here for the forest.”

If local resistance surprised her, it was nothing compared with the battles to come. In September 1999, having developed a plan to log a third of the tract, Klein’s staff filed an 81-page report—required by U.S. regulations—outlining the possible environmental impacts. Environmentalists pounced. Lawyers for the Tucson-based Center for Biological Diversity, nicknamed nature’s legal eagles, and two other nonprofit environmental groups said the study had insufficiently evaluated the effects on the environment and such wildlife as the Mexican spotted owl. They challenged the Forest Service computer model that suggested that the northern goshawk’s habitat would actually be improved. They protested the harvest of large trees. The center barraged Klein with questions about logging trees infested with a parasitic plant called dwarf mistletoe: “What are the levels of infection in these stands? Have past harvests designed to stop dwarf mistletoe worked? Has the Forest Service monitored any such sales? Why is such a heavy-handed approach being used?” The environmental groups appealed to regional Forest Service officials to stop the project in November 1999. In February 2000, when the appeal was rejected, they notified the service that they intended to sue to block the project. Foresters continued to ready the forest for logging, marking trees to be cut.

Over the next two years, Klein’s staff worked with lawyers on the legal case, responding to more questions and gathering more data. “If we don’t write everything down, it’s assumed we didn’t consider it,” she says. “Every time we lose a battle, we have to go back and do more analysis, computer models and evaluations. It’s a downward spiral. We’re forced to do so much writing that we spend less time in the woods knowing what we’re making a decision about.”

Until now, Klein had always thought of herself as an environmentalist. She had joined the Peace Corps and served in Honduras after receiving her forestry degree from PennState in 1976. One of her first Forest Service assignments was at a New Mexico outpost, where she’d been proud to live in a house built by the pioneering forester and conservationist Aldo Leopold, author of the 1949 ASand County Almanac, a bible of the environmental movement.

In mid-June of 2002, Klein prepared her final rebuttals to the complaints of the legal eagles. Meanwhile, the drought extended into its fourth year. “The week before the fire, there were three of us in the office working on our response,” she says. “We worked all week and Friday night and Saturday, and we had just completed our report and sent it to the regional office on Monday. Afire broke out on Tuesday, a second fire started on Thursday, and four or five days later the whole area had burned up. Talk about frustration and hopelessness and anger and depression!”

The Tuesday fire had been set by an arsonist on the Fort Apache Indian Reservation, 22 miles from the Black Mesa Ranger Station in Heber-Overgaard. This fire was already burning out of control when, two days later, a hiker lost on the reservation started a fire to signal for help. Soon these two fires, the Rodeo and Chediski, would merge into an inferno.

Forests across the west are primed for catastrophic fire, in part by a government policy put in place after the “Big Blowup,” in 1910, a two-day firestorm that incinerated three million acres in Idaho and Montana and killed 85 people. The fire was so ferocious that people in Boston could see the smoke. The U.S. Forest Service, then five years old, decided to put out every fire in its domain, and within three decades the agency had formulated what it called the 10 a.m. policy, directing that fires be extinguished no later than the morning after their discovery. As fire-fighting methods improved through the years, the amount of burned forest and grassland declined from about 30 million acres annually in 1900 to about 5 million in the 1970s.

But the success of fire suppression, combined with public opposition to both commercial logging and preventive tree thinning on federal land, has turned Western forests into pyres, some experts say, with profound ecological effects. The vast ponderosa pine forests of the West evolved with frequent low-intensity ground fires. In some places, land that had as many as 30 or 40 large ponderosa pines scattered across an acre in the early 1900s, in grassy parklike stands, now have 1,000 to 2,000 smaller-diameter trees per acre. These fuel-dense forests are susceptible to destructive crown fires, which burn in the canopy and destroy most trees and seeds.


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