Wild Fires and the Forests of the South West

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Wild Fires and the Forests of the South West

Post by Bryant on Fri Aug 24, 2012 12:23 am

How The Smokey Bear Effect Led To Raging Wildfires
by Christopher Joyce
NPR News

The history of fire in the American Southwest is buried in a catacomb of rooms under the bleachers of the football stadium at the University of Arizona.

Here rules Professor Thomas Swetnam, tree ring expert. You want to read a tree ring? You go to Tom. He's a big, burly guy with a beard and a true love for trees.

Tree sections are stacked floor to ceiling. They're like rounds chopped from a carrot, the carrot being a tree trunk. They're the size of dinner plates. When the football team scores, they rattle on their shelves.

Growth rings tell how old the sectioned tree was. But when Swetnam holds up one, he points to something else: fire scars. They're black marks, about the size of a fingernail clipping, left by fires.

"The first time here, back in the 1600s, it looks like, and it created a wound there. Basically the fire was hot enough to burn through the bark," he says. But the fire wasn't hot enough to kill the tree. So the next few rings show normal growth.

"Until the next fire occurs, and it creates another scar," he says. "And another, and another, and another, and another, and another."

Scars from thousands of sections show how often fires burned in the Southwest. It was every five or 10 years, mostly — small fires that consumed grass and shrubs and small seedlings, but left the big Ponderosa pine and Douglas fir just fine. This was the norm.

Then something happened.

"Around 1890 or 1900, it stops," Swetnam says. "We call it the Smokey Bear effect."

Settlers brought livestock that ate the grass, so fires had little fuel. Then when the U.S. Forest Service was formed, its marching orders were "no fires."

And it was the experts who approved the all-out ban on fires in the Southwest. They got it wrong.

That's the view of fire historian Stephen Pyne.

"The irony here is that the argument for setting these areas aside as national forests and parks was, to a large extent, to protect them from fire," Pyne says. "Instead, over time they became the major habitat for free-burning fire."

So instead of a few dozen trees per acre, the Southwestern mountains of New Mexico, Arizona, Colorado and Utah are now choked with trees of all sizes, and grass and shrubs. Essentially, it's fuel.

And now fires are burning bigger and hotter. They're not just damaging forests — they're wiping them out. Last year, more than 74,000 wildfires burned over 8.7 million acres in the U.S.

That included the huge Wallow fire in Arizona.

"It burned more than 40,000 acres in the first eight hours," says Swetnam, the tree ring expert. "A tornado of fire."

Fires in the Southwest have been getting bigger and bigger over the past two decades.

"Now the fire behaviors are just off the charts," Swetnam says. "I mean, they are extraordinary. Actually, I think in some cases, they're fire behavior that probably these forests haven't seen in millennia or maybe even tens of thousands of years."

Over the past several years, even as fewer fires have struck the Southwest, they've burned more land. The U.S. Forest Service now spends about half its budget on firefighting.

Many fire experts embrace controlled, or "prescribed," fires — purposely set fires that do the cleanup job that small natural fires once did. It takes the tinder out of the tinder box.

But people have built homes and towns close to forests; they don't like the smoke, and prescribed burns sometimes get out of control. The Cerro Grande fire in New Mexico in 2000 was a controlled fire — until it jumped fire lines and destroyed hundreds of homes.

I talked to veteran fire manager William Armstrong of the U.S. Forest Service about that, sitting on a ridge near Santa Fe, where he has done prescribed burns himself. Armstrong says people must accept fire in their lives.

"Large blocks of forest — if they want those — then what they must understand is that fire is inevitable," he says.

He says to save forests from total annihilation — and the wildlife and water supplies they protect — you have to set some fires and let some natural fires burn.

"The choice is not whether or not these forests burn," Armstrong says. "The choice is how they burn. What kind of intensity are we going to see those burn at?"

But as fire experts like Craig Allen, an ecologist with the U.S. Geological Survey in New Mexico, are now discovering, fire is increasingly out of their control.

"Basically, the mountains in the Southwest — you can almost think of them as caskets of fuel," Allen says. "Gunpowder has been building up in these things for a century, and now it's dangerous to try to defuse."

I don't necessarily agree with the concluding sentiment. In many non-wilderness areas mechanical mastication (which ranges from Forest crews with chain saws to tractors with giant attachments that can reduce trees to mulch) is a common and viable alternative to controlled burns. I would suspect that there is generally more ecological benefit from a controlled burn (ie some trees, like the giant sequoias in California, require fire for their cones to open and release seeds) than from mastication, however mastication can remove the fire ladder in areas not safe to burn.

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Re: Wild Fires and the Forests of the South West

Post by Bryant on Fri Aug 24, 2012 12:26 am

Why Forest-Killing Megafires Are The New Normal
by Christopher Joyce
NPR News

Fire scientists are calling it "the new normal": a time of fires so big and hot that no one can remember anything like it.

One of the scientists who coined that term is Craig Allen. I drive with him to New Mexico's Bandelier National Monument, where he works for the U.S. Geological Survey. We take a dirt road up into the Jemez Mountains, into a landscape of black poles as far as you can see.

Except they aren't poles. Every single tree is dead. For miles.

"You can tell me the next time you see a green tree," Allen says. "I'd like to know the next time you see a live tree."

This is the Santa Fe National Forest. It's been hammered by fire numerous times since 1996. Last year's Las Conchas fire outdid them all, though. It was the biggest fire ever in New Mexico since records have been kept.

We stop at a high, rocky ridge. Allen jumps out of the car. He's an edgy, active guy with a bowl of brown hair, and he can talk for hours about trees. We walk to the edge.

"We're looking here at an 800-foot-deep canyon with steep canyon walls," he says. For thousands of years, these mountains have been open forest: grass and Ponderosa pines, a distinctive giant with bark the color of whole wheat toast and a spray of needles at the top.

"What kept those forests open before was the natural process of fire," Allen says. Natural fires from lightning burn along the ground, taking out only the shrubs and small trees. But for the last century, the U.S. Forest Service has suppressed almost all fires. They thought fire did more harm than good.

The result is the blackened mange below us and more black poles out to the horizon. The Las Conchas fire burned more than 150,000 acres of forest — about twice the area of Manhattan. It was so intense, it reached up into the crowns of these trees and wiped them out.

"The heat of the fire creates a convection column," Allen says. "They look like an atom bomb going off, actually. They go up until they hit the stratosphere layer, often, and flatten out anvil-shaped like that. That convection, as hot air rises — it's pulling in at the surface more oxygen, which is feeding the fire."

Allen takes me to a meadow to show me what's grown since the last three big fires.

"This has gone from being a forest for, we think, probably many thousands of years, a Ponderosa pine forest," he says, "to shrubs. Indefinitely."

And those shrubs just make the next fire burn even faster and hotter. Over the past two decades, fires have been setting new records for size and intensity.

First Fire, Then Flooding

These fires affect people as well, and not just homes and vacation cabins in the woods. At the visitor center at the Bandelier National Monument, the staff is busy trying to stave off flooding.

Last year's fire stripped the vegetation from steep hillsides, then the summer monsoon rolled in. Flash floods cascade down the slopes.

Bandelier Chief Ranger Tom Betts says a swollen stream almost flooded the park headquarters.

"It was only about a half an inch of rain, and on a nonfire landscape we probably wouldn't even have seen much of a rise," Betts says. "But as you can see, it came up in this area about 3-and-a-half feet."

Today, Allen and Betts are figuring out how to do deal with the next one.

"High water and flood — what does that trigger in terms of management response?" Allen asks Betts.

"Flood triggers shutting down any more visitor access," Betts says. "And we need to shut down utilities — we need to have people get stuff out of their offices."

Floods also threaten to wash away the artifacts left here by the Pueblo Indians, who lived in caves in the canyon walls.

The Forest Service has changed its longstanding policy of "no fires." It realized that the fuel buildup was dangerous. Now it lets some burn and starts "controlled" fires to clear out that fuel. It also cuts and removes smaller trees.

But Allen says the Forest Service is way, way behind. There will be more big, unstoppable fires.

"Nobody is suppressing an active, running crown fire, OK. It's almost political theater, you know, with air tankers at that point," he says. "Air tankers can help, [as can] fire retardant at the margins." But burning embers from big fires leap across those margins and travel for miles.

Allen has been studying the Santa Fe forest for 30 years. He feels personally responsible. "This is a part of the world I know best," he says, admitting the land has changed forever.

"Even without climate change in the mix," he says, "this is not coming back as the forests and woodlands that they were before. It's hard to argue that we didn't fail."

And climate change is likely to make success even more difficult to achieve.

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Re: Wild Fires and the Forests of the South West

Post by Miles1 on Fri Aug 24, 2012 1:25 am

Bryant wrote:
In many non-wilderness areas mechanical mastication (which ranges from Forest crews with chain saws to tractors with giant attachments that can reduce trees to mulch)

Man, its too early in the morning, I really read the word "mastication" wrong and had a flash mental image of a tractor with a giant strap-on dildo (and don't ask what i thought was happening with the chain saws). I need more coffee......


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Re: Wild Fires and the Forests of the South West

Post by Marconius on Fri Aug 24, 2012 12:52 pm

I saw this topic years ago. This is just scratching the surface of how the eco-movement is so wrong in its approach. Responsible conservation is the answer, not zero tolerance.

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