November 2015

Fire in the forest

By Dexter Gill

Behold, how great a matter a little fire kindleth! Hundreds of wildfires are burning today, consuming timber, wildlife, homes, damaging soils and watersheds. It is kind of interesting how we have become so complacent in our educated ignorance of the natural environment we live in. We know that the forests have become thick like a briar patch, causing the waters to be reduced and the wildlife and livestock to have little to eat. We know that historically, fire has been, and still is, the ultimate cleansing agent. We know that in the absence of man’s God-given ability and direction to manipulate and manage the forests and rangelands, the natural element of fire will do the job. Knowing that, we still sit on our thumbs, saying to ourselves how great a thing we have done by not doing anything. The forests die and burn.

Man is the only created life form that was given the ability to manipulate and use the various resources for his benefit as well as others. Fire in the forest is natural and will always be with us. Man needs to control and use fire, to limit damage and improve the forest. When used irresponsibly or not controlled, the fire can cause both short and long-term damage.

So what can happen? We see the burned trees, wildlife and watersheds and shake our heads at the waste, but there is much more happening that many do not see. A large hot fire can reach temperatures of 1,500 to over 2,000 degrees Fahrenheit, which is more heat than is needed to melt the soil into a pavement-like condition. The top horizon of the soil is the old organic layer of rotted leaves and needles and is covered by newer dry needles and leaves, referred to as duff.

The organic layer is alive with many microbes and fungi that are necessary for the health of the soil and plant life. A hot fire can burn both the duff and organic soil down to mineral soil, killing the microbes and sterilizing the soil. This is disastrous for the watershed and retards regrowth of trees and other vegetation, affecting wildlife as well as the water. A cool fire creeps around cleaning up only the duff and small dead wood, acting to expedite the return of minerals to the soil.

Some are blaming the Forest Service for doing “too good of a job” by putting out all fires in the past, allowing fuels to build up. The Forest Service Organic Act of 1897 directed the national forests were “to improve and protect the forest, or to secure favorable conditions of water flows, and to furnish a continuous supply of timber.” The forests were to produce and provide water and timber for the local areas.

The Forest Service did their job very well in producing and protecting the resources until the Congress started to mess around by making new laws in the 1960s and ’70s, changing the Organic Act’s direction, to please the rising pseudo- environmental activists, turning the forests away from managing for water and timber to a preservation of views and public desires.

Looking at the past 30 years of wildfire statistics is quite revealing. From 1985-2014 there has been a 10 percent decrease in average number of fires (about 80,000/year), but the acres burned increased by 225 percent and the tax money spent on firefighting increased 400 percent. In the ’80s, firefighting costs were about $400 million/ year. By the 2000s, the costs were averaging $1.6 billion/year, with a high of near $2 billion, on the same number of fires? This year is already worse than that. It looks like a new tax-supported “Firefighting Industry” has been created to replace the past active production industries for timber, livestock and water needed in local economies.

Are today’s wildfires really a result of the Forest Service doing too good a firefighting job in the past? NO! No! No! In the past the excess fuel was removed and used by the wood-products industry, fuel-wood gathering and livestock- grazing, which is one of the best fire-prevention tools available, creating jobs and economy. Prescribed fires were used to clean up the residual. In the past 30-40 years, these have all been greatly reduced by foolish federal laws, policies and regulations, resulting in large buildups of unused forest products that will now be wasted and converted into tons of air-polluting smoke and ash in the next wildfire.

So that is all interesting, but why should we care? Well, the Dolores River is literally the lifeblood of Montezuma and Dolores counties. It is our drinking water, irrigation water, wildlife water, livestock water, recreation water. There’s no alternative source. What can be done to protect it? Rapid response on all fires, keep all access roads open for rapid efficient access, re-develop and expand the wood-products industry and fuelwood markets to economically reduce the heavy fuels, increase the livestock use to reduce the flash fuels. These actions produce jobs and economy, which pays for the improved forest health.

How important is this? The river canyon and its tributaries are perfect “chimneys” waiting for the next big fire. History tends to repeat itself. We can emulate the cleansing wildfires by removing the excess fuels for economic benefit and improvement of watersheds, wildlife and recreation. Use it or lose it, by Burn Baby Burn!

Dexter Gill is a retired forest manager who worked for private industry, three Western state forestry agencies, and the Navajo Nation forestry department. He writes from Lewis, Colo.