We Didn't Start the Fire

Or Did We? The Politics of Wildfire Ecology
By Simon Dyer
  |  Gorp.com
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Wildfires followed us north this summer, but the threat seemed distant and unreal. Such abstract notions changed one afternoon as we ate lunch just south of Lemhi Pass, where Lewis and Clark traversed the Rocky Mountains for the first time. Huddled in a nook of trees below the Divide, we watched a dry thunderstorm pound the country ahead of us. After it had passed, we gingerly continued, and within half an hour came across the target of one of the lightning strikes. Already half a dozen trees were ablaze, and the heat was tremendous. As we hurried downhill and out of the National Forest to alert someone, I didn't realize that would be the last time I would walk on the CDT for over 300 miles.

Political tensions had been smoldering all summer. It was a rare town stop where we didn't find a local newspaper devoting inches of newsprint to the causes of the fires. In vitriolic letters, damning editorials, and interviews with Montana Governor Marc Racicot, the message was always the same. The West's forests were being destroyed by radical environmentalists, and the Clinton administration was to blame. The premise went something like this: Declining logging rates on public land had resulted in stands of old decadent trees, creating an accident waiting to happen. Now the West was paying with the biggest fire year in decades. In reality, studies have shown no link between fires and decline in timber harvest in the West. They also indicate that fires are twice as likely to start in roaded areas as roadless ones. Still, the frustration of local people was evident throughout Montana and Idaho. A bar owner in Leadore, Idaho, summed up the general sentiment: "They won't let you do anything with the forest these days, may as well let it all burn!"

How Fires Happen
Government policy indeed played a large part in the size of fires this year, but critics missed the point by blaming relatively recent proposals that have reduced the timber harvest on National Forest lands. The real problem arises from the long-term effects of a hundred years of fire suppression. It is a great irony that the more effective fire suppression is, the more fuels accumulate, resulting in more intense fires next time. This buildup of brush and downed material combined with a severe drought created forest tinderboxes that were ignited by the many dry thunderstorms that rolled across the Rocky Mountains this summer.

Fires are natural, but six million acres is a lot of forest to burn in a single year. They are of particular concern in areas that sociologists call the Urban-Wildland interface. Populations are soaring in the Western states, and the rapid growth seems to be largely driven by folks seeking a place in the woods. More people of course means a greater risk to life and property from the same kind of wildfires that burned in 2000, and the huge cost of protecting private homes with public funds will likely be a contentious issue in the future.

Published: 30 Apr 2002 | Last Updated: 15 Sep 2010
Details mentioned in this article were accurate at the time of publication
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