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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

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They got their first one within days, but it petered out. It took a year of waiting before they got a big one. On August 10, 1973, lightning struck at Fitz Creek, which runs into White Cap Creek just above Paradise. As fire spread over the steep canyon slope along the White Cap, Daniels, Aldrich and Mutch stood by and watched. “Every day was a surprise,” Aldrich recalls. “I learned more in a few days watching that fire than I did in the preceding 15 years fighting fire.” He expected a much more intense fire. But up in the ponderosa pine forests, carpeted with thick layers of needles, the fire merely crept along. “I was able to step through the fire, or if it was burning intensely, I could run through it,” he says. Blue grouse were picking away at the roasted pinecones. Mice and chipmunks scurried about. He saw a bull elk nonchalantly grazing about ten feet from the flames. Mutch noticed a black bear poking along the edges of the fire. Nowhere did they see any animals running scared.

But after five days, serenity gave way to shock. A “spot” of burning debris flew across White Cap Creek and ignited the north-facing slope, which was outside the area of the fire plan. Here, thick stands of highly flammable Douglas fir grew in the shade, surrounded by a heavy buildup of broken branches and other debris. “Dave and I were up at a lookout when we got the call that the fire was across the creek, and we turned around and saw this mushroom cloud,” Mutch says. “In 30 minutes the fire had gone from the creek bottom 2,000 feet up to the ridge top, with 100-foot flame lengths, throwing spots everywhere. We just stared at it and said to each other, ‘Oh my God, what have we done?’ ”

Daniels was called out of a public meeting in Missoula and raced back to the Bitterroot. Mutch was dispatched to brief a team of firefighters, some of them his old buddies, who were called in to stop the blaze. The firefighters wanted to put out the fire on both sides of the creek. But Daniels defended his turf. He designated the escaped fire the Snake Creek Fire and insisted that the firefighters leave his Fitz Creek Fire alone.

“They just absolutely thought we were crazy,” he says, “but they put out the escaped fire after a week, at the cost of half a million dollars, and we allowed our fire to burn clear into the middle of September, and never had any more trouble with it.”

The unchecked Fitz Creek fire marked a profound change in Forest Service philosophy. Since 1972, says the Forest Service’s Bunnell, federal agencies have made more than 4,000 decisions to stay the firefighter’s hand, resulting in more than a million acres of public lands “treated” by natural wildland fires. In the Bitterroot Wilderness alone, Daniels and his successors have let more than 500 wildland fires burn freely, with impressive results. The Fitz Creek Fire veterans were amazed by what they saw in 2002. “It was the first time I’ve ever seen a forest working the way a natural forest should work,” Daniels says. “You could see the results of all the old and new fires blended together in a mosaic; everything from old stands of decadent and dead trees where woodpeckers love to nest, to thick patches of young trees providing a home for the snowshoe hare, which in turn is prey to the lynx we’re trying to recover. It’s probably the way the forest looked before anyone began to influence it.”

In 2000, a drought year, when Montana had its worst fire season in nearly a century, the Bitterroot Wilderness turned out to be fire resistant. A lot of fires got started, burning some 60,000 acres, but not one firefighter was needed to put them out. As the new fires kept running into places that had previously been allowed to burn, they stalled and expired for lack of fuels on the ground. “We’ve gained a lot of knowledge about natural fires in these ecosystems,” says Jerry Williams, the Forest Service’s director of Fire and Aviation Management, “and a lot of it came about watching wildland fires that we’ve let burn freely in the Bitterroot Wilderness over the past 30 years.”

So far, though, the hands-off approach to fires has been mostly limited to wilderness areas. Other national forest areas are generally so dense and so loaded with debris and fuels that letting a lightning strike burn freely would lead to catastrophe. Foresters say that such areas would benefit from natural fires, but only after undergoing “mechanical treatment”— thinning trees and removing deadwood and other fuels. But when foresters propose such treatments, some environmentalists, who believe they, too, have the forest’s best interests in mind, oppose the efforts.

Most Forest Service professionals advocate selling timber from national forests to help thin aging stands and also to defray the costs of noncommercial thinning. But some environmental groups argue that commercial logging does more to destroy the environment than to restore it, and some, like the Sierra Club, have called for an end to all commercial logging in national forests.

The environmental community’s distrust of the Forest Service has deep roots, and veteran foresters acknowledge past mistakes. Retired forester Bill Worf concedes that his generation was slow to accept the spirit, if not the letter, of environmental protection laws, and he even admits to a bit of creative obfuscation in times gone by. “You’d decide what you want to do, and then you would write an environmental impact statement that would support it. And that takes a lot of paper because you’d have to hide a lot of stuff.” Environmentalists were particularly angered over the years by clearcutting, or removing all trees from an area. Indeed, at the same time Daniels was approving fire use in the Bitterroot Wilderness, other parts of the Montana forest were the focus of a national battle over the practice. Mutch, the former forester, remembers that loggers “simply harvested what was there, then went in with bulldozers to put in terraces, and planted ponderosa pine seedlings.” The result hardly replaced the complex forest that had been there. “It looked like rice paddy terraces in Southeast Asia,” he went on. “It was very harsh treatment of the land. And people said, ‘Hell no, that’s timber mining!’ ”

The chief of the Forest Service, Dale Bosworth, says that clear-cutting is a thing of the past: “Most of what we harvest now is for stewardship purposes, habitat improvement for wildlife, restoration of watersheds and fuels reduction. All this shrill screaming about timber harvests is just a distraction from the real issue, which is about getting these fire-adapted ecosystems back into a healthy condition so they will be more resistant to catastrophic wildfires.”

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