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Fire Fight

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

For its part, the group that led the fight against Klein’s tree-thinning proposal hasn’t changed its thinking. Environmentalists at the Center for Biological Diversity believe that even if the project had gone ahead, it wouldn’t have made a difference in halting such a large and destructive fire. “The Forest Service is hijacking important concepts like fuels reduction to disguise traditional timber sales,” says Brian Segee, the center’s Southwest public lands director. “I walked the ground and looked at the marking of trees, and they are turning the forest into a tree farm. When economics drives the decisions, it ultimately results in ecosystem degradation, and we just keep finding that when we don’t resort to the courts, we’re ignored.”

Not every forester has embraced the idea of fighting every fire. In 1972, in the Wilderness Area of Montana’s BitterrootNational Forest, a handful of Forest Service heretics intentionally let a lightning strike burn—the first time the agency had done that. One of the maverick foresters, Bob Mutch, then a young researcher at the Forest Service Sciences Fire Laboratory, in Missoula, Montana, had had the idea that forest health might actually depend on fire. To be sure, a few foresters had previously argued that forests evolved with fire and were adapted to it, but they had been proverbial voices in the wilderness.

Mutch and the others are now retired, but in the midst of the destructive fire season of 2002—and only six weeks after the Rodeo-Chediski Fire scorched Arizona—they journeyed to the Bitterroot Mountains to assess the experiment they had begun three decades earlier. The Forest Service, whose orthodoxy they once challenged, now wanted their advice on preventing catastrophes from occurring in national forests.

In the BitterrootMountains, it’s only a short way from Paradise to Hell’s Half Acre. The ranger outpost at Paradise, where the veterans initially gathered, is a place of deep silence, sparkling water and tall ponderosa pines. The men were eager to look at “the scene of the crime,” as they called it. They hardly looked like rebels. Among them was Bud Moore, in his mid-80s, who had grown up in a family of woodcutters and trappers in these mountains, and was hired as a Forest Service smoke chaser in 1935. There was Bill Worf, just a few years younger, who today is almost blind and last summer hiked the wilderness trail with black glasses and a white cane while someone ahead warned of fallen logs across the path. Orville Daniels, now 68, was the supervisor of the BitterrootNational Forest back in 1970. And there were Bob Mutch and Dave Aldrich, who now looked a bit like members of the Monkey Wrench Gang (as author Edward Abbey called a bunch of radical environmentalists in his 1975 novel of the same name). Aldrich, a muscular 63-year-old, had always looked at fire as the enemy until he joined the group. Mutch, 69, an intellectual and a researcher with a passion for ecology, had once been a smoke jumper, a Forest Service firefighter who parachutes from planes.

The only member of the group still employed at that time by the Forest Service was David Bunnell, 59. He was a firefighter before falling in with the Bitterroot bunch in the 1970s, and he remembers well his first encounter with them. “Renegades! Heretics!” he recalls thinking. “I’m surprised they weren’t all fired.”

As the group hiked a nine-mile trail from the Paradise guard station to a clearing called Cooper’s Flat, every step took them through country they’d once watched burn. They pitched tents and talked late into the night over a campfire, reminiscing, and discussing what their experiment had told them about how best to manage America’s national forests.

It was Bud Moore who had ignited their conspiracy. In 1969, he was transferred from Washington, D.C. to Missoula as regional director of what was then called Fire Control and Air Operations. As a Bitterroot native, he knew these woods deeply and sensed that fire was a part of their ecology. “When we were starting this program,” he says, “we got tremendous support from the environmental community. The biggest resistance we had was in the Forest Service. We had that big culture of firefighters, and I was one of them.”

Worf was one of them also. The idea that fire might belong in the wilderness didn’t come easily to him. He’d spent years managing timber sales and fighting fires. In 1964, he landed on a task force in Washington, D.C. that was looking at how the Forest Service could implement the recently passed Wilderness Act, which defined wilderness as a place where “the earth and its community of life are untrammeled by man.” Worf says, “They weren’t talking about a pretty place to backpack!” He read Leopold, who had proposed that the United States set aside wilderness areas and watch nature without getting in its way. In 1969, Worf took a job as regional director of Recreation, Wilderness and Lands in Missoula, where he and Moore got together and agreed that managing wilderness meant leaving some natural fires alone.

“ ‘We’re thinking about a pilot project on fire use in wilderness,’ ” Daniels recalls Moore telling him in a phone call. “It just flashed through my mind, ‘Of course this is what we should do.’ ” Mutch and Aldrich, who had recently joined Daniels’ staff, began making inventories of trees and other vegetation, searching for clues to the history of fire in the forests. They cut into fire scars on ponderosa pine, revealing charred tree rings going back as far as the 1720s, showing that fires had burned there every 10 to 20 years. Those blazes evidently were ground fires that periodically cleared away flammable debris, stimulated regeneration of shrubs and grasses and, in general, did not kill large, healthy trees. “We were trying to re-create in our minds how fires had burned on these lands,” Aldrich says, “and then write prescriptions for trying to bring fire back.”

Their main concern was to keep wildfires from escaping beyond the wilderness, and they developed criteria for letting a fire burn and provisions for fighting the blaze if things went wrong. Aldrich remembers refining his ideas with Mutch late into many a night at Cooper’s Flat. Finally, in August 1972, Daniels and Mutch flew to Washington and presented a plan to the agency’s top brass to form what would become the Wilderness Prescribed Natural Fire Program. The plan was approved. Now all they needed was a fire.

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