Burning Times

The Hidden Story of Forest Fires
  |  Gorp.com

The West's wildfire season of 2000 will be remembered as one of its worst in modern times. As of mid-August some 85 fires, ranging in size from a few hundred to more than 100,000 acres, were burning across the region. And there are at least four weeks of wildfire season left to go.

Several factors have combined to create the high number of fires—and large, destructive fires—of this year. Across southwest Montana, one of the areas hardest hit, below-normal accumulations of snowpack in the mountains left forests drier than usual. Many of these same areas received below-average rainfall and hotter than average temperatures through spring and early summer. Forests were dangerously dry by the middle of July, a month sooner than in a more typical year. And the dry, hot weather has remained.

Wildfires are an essential natural component of our western forests, which, loosely defined, stretch from California to the Black Hills of South Dakota. But the wildfires burning in forests today aren't like the fires of old. Nor are the forests today like the forests of old. A sizable percentage of western forests are less than fully functional. They are unproductive for many species of wildlife and plantlife. They are unstable and fragile. In a year like this one, the realities of forest problems—and the great challenges to solving them—are as unmistakable as a rising cloud of smoke against blue sky.

The reasons behind forest declines are not difficult to identify. Decades of fire suppression — the practice of immediately putting out any wildfire as soon as possible—have eliminated the means by which a forest maintains its vigor and natural diversity. Decades of industrial-scale timber harvesting have substantially altered the age and species composition of many forests. Decades of livestock grazing have weakened forest understories of grasses, wildflowers and other plantlife, which have their own important role in forest health.


Published: 28 Apr 2002 | Last Updated: 15 Sep 2010
Details mentioned in this article were accurate at the time of publication

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