Goal of fight­ing fire with fire faces hur­dles in West

The Olympian - - Front Page - BY BRIAN MELLEY As­so­ci­ated Press

The thick scent of smoke hung in the mid­day air when a trail along the Kings River opened up to an omi­nous scene: flames in the trees and thick gray smoke shroud­ing canyon walls.

Fire­fight­ers were on the job. In fact, they had started the blaze that chewed through thick ferns, black­ened downed trees and charred the for­est floor. The pre­scribed burn – a low-in­ten­sity, closely man­aged fire – was in­tended to clear out un­der­growth and pro­tect the heart of Kings Canyon Na­tional Park from fu­ture wild­fires that are grow­ing larger and more fre­quent amid cli­mate change.

The tac­tic is con­sid­ered one of the best ways to pre­vent the kind of cat­a­strophic de­struc­tion that has be­come com­mon from wild­fires, but its use falls woe­fully short of goals in the U.S. West. A study pub­lished in the jour­nal Fire in April found pre­scribed burns on fed­eral land in the last 20 years across the West has stayed level or fallen de­spite calls for more.

Pre­scribed fires are cred­ited with mak­ing forests health­ier and stop­ping or slow­ing the ad­vance of some blazes. De­spite those suc­cesses, there are plenty of rea­sons they are not set as of­ten as of­fi­cials would like, rang­ing from poor con­di­tions to safely burn to bu­reau­cratic snags and pub­lic op­po­si­tion.

Af­ter a wild­fire last year largely lev­eled the city of Par­adise and killed 86 peo­ple, the state pri­or­i­tized 35 brush and other veg­e­ta­tion-re­duc­tion projects that could all in­volve some use of in­ten­tional fire, said Mike Mohler, deputy direc­tor of the Cal­i­for­nia De­part­ment of Forestry and Fire Pro­tec­tion.

De­spite the push for more burns, there are dis­as­trous re­minders of pre­scribed fires blow­ing out of con­trol – such as a 2012 Colorado burn that killed three peo­ple and dam­aged or de­stroyed more than two dozen homes.

Over­com­ing pub­lic fears by teach­ing about “good smoke, bad smoke, out-of-con­trol fire and pre­scribed fire” is just one hur­dle be­fore fire­fight­ers can put match to kin­dling, Mohler said.

“It’s the dif­fer­ence be­tween fire un­der our terms and fight­ing fire on Mother Nature’s terms,” he said.

It can take years to plan and clear fed­eral, state and lo­cal en­vi­ron­men­tal and air pol­lu­tion reg­u­la­tions. A burn among gi­ant se­quoias once took 13 years to ac­com­plish, said Michael The­une, a spokesman for Sequoia and Kings Canyon Na­tional Parks.

In the Amer­i­can West, where the land­scape is steep and downed trees, brush and other fu­els have built up over decades of fire sup­pres­sion, the so-called burn win­dow can be short be­cause of hot, dry con­di­tions.

Re­lax­ing en­vi­ron­men­tal re­stric­tions has cleared the way for more pre­scribed fires in some cases.

Ore­gon re­cently changed air qual­ity rules for planned fires to strike a bal­ance be­tween smoky

PRE­SCRIBED FIRES ARE CRED­ITED WITH MAK­ING FORESTS HEALTH­IER AND STOP­PING OR SLOW­ING THE AD­VANCE OF SOME BLAZES. DE­SPITE THOSE SUC­CESSES, THERE ARE PLENTY OF REA­SONS THEY ARE NOT SET AS OF­TEN AS OF­FI­CIALS WOULD LIKE

win­ter skies and bad sum­mer blazes. Cal­i­for­nia pro­claimed a state of emer­gency to al­low it to fast-track brush clear­ing.

Most states and fed­eral agen­cies in the U.S. West have ambitious goals they don’t achieve, said Crys­tal Kolden, a Univer­sity of Idaho for­est and fire science pro­fes­sor whose study con­cluded that not enough pre­scribed fires are be­ing done in the re­gion.

“They know they need to be do­ing more pre­scribed fire, they want to be do­ing more pre­scribed fire,” she said. “They are sim­ply un­able to ac­com­plish that.”

Op­po­nents cite the threat to wildlife and re­lease of green­house gases. In Cal­i­for­nia, some en­vi­ron­men­tal­ists op­posed in­ten­tional burns be­cause they can de­stroy nat­u­ral drought-tol­er­ant shrubs and re­place them with flammable in­va­sive weeds and grasses.

Rick Halsey of the Cal­i­for­nia Chaparral In­sti­tute said rein­tro­duc­ing fire through pre­scribed burns is ap­pro­pri­ate in the Sierra Ne­vada, where more fre­quent light­ning-sparked fires and blazes his­tor­i­cally set by Na­tive Amer­i­cans are be­lieved to im­prove forests by clear­ing brush to al­low taller trees to thrive and open­ing sequoia seed pods so they can re­pro­duce.

But Halsey said pre­scribed fires don’t help much of the rest of the state. The fire that tore through Par­adise showed how in­ef­fec­tive clear­ing un­der­brush can be – it roared across 7 miles that had burned just 10 years ear­lier.

The state ac­knowl­edged in a draft en­vi­ron­men­tal im­pact report that clear­ing veg­e­ta­tion may not slow or halt ex­treme fires.

But suc­cess­ful pre­scribed burns can save prop­erty from some fu­ture fires, sup­port­ers said.

Four years ago, Cedar Grove in the bot­tom of Kings Canyon es­caped a mas­sive light­ning-ig­nited fire – flames burned up to where pe­ri­odic pre­scribed burns had thinned un­der­growth. About $400 mil­lion in prop­erty, in­clud­ing em­ployee hous­ing, lodg­ing, camp­grounds and a wa­ter treat­ment plant, was spared, said The­une, the parks spokesman.

Last win­ter was a very wet one in Cal­i­for­nia, and that left brush and veg­e­ta­tion less volatile through spring. In Kings Canyon, fire­fight­ers re­turned in June to burn different seg­ments along a nar­row strip of pines, cedars and man­zanita be­tween the rag­ing Kings River and a road that ends in the canyon.

With other fire­fight­ers stand­ing by in case em­bers es­caped, a half-dozen mem­bers of the park’s Ar­row­head Hot Shots me­thod­i­cally dripped flame from gas-and-diesel torches to ig­nite dry pine nee­dles, twigs and other ac­cu­mu­lated ma­te­rial.

A mo­saic-like pat­tern of fire crept through grasses, pine cones and dead branches. Downed pon­derosa pines be­came oc­ca­sional flash­points. Teams with hoses doused flames that threat­ened to climb liv­ing trees.

Ide­ally, Sequoia and Kings Canyon parks would burn 10,000 or more acres a year, The­une said. The an­nual tar­get is about a fifth of that, and the ac­tual acreage burned of­ten falls far short of that goal.

Over two days, the fire crew black­ened the 218 acres tar­geted, dou­bling the to­tal area burned last year in the two parks.

But it was merely 10% of the parks’ an­nual goal and just a tiny frac­tion of land in the U.S. West that could be treated with pre­scribed fire.

BRIAN MELLEY AP

Fire­fighter An­drew Pet­tit walks among the flames dur­ing a pre­scribed fire June 11 in Cedar Grove at Kings Canyon Na­tional Park, Calif. The pre­scribed burn, a low-in­ten­sity, closely man­aged fire, was in­tended to clear out un­der­growth.

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