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Researchers: wildfire mantra is misleading

Bob Berwyn

Wildfire mantra misleading, some researchers saySub: Thinning may not work in Eagle County’s lodgepole forestsBy Bob BerwynFuels reduction has become one of the modern-day mantras for forest managers and homeowners in the wildland-urban interface, where subdivisions sprawl into flammable forests. After all, it is really the only part of the wildfire equation that humans have any control over, since we can’t change the weather or the topography.And while no one disputes the need for focused community protection efforts, researchers say politicians and citizens should learn to differentiate among different forest ecosystems and their respective fire regimes as the debate over forest management heads toward another showdown in the U.S. Senate.Federal lawmakers this month will consider several so-called forest health measures, including a Bush administration proposal that would include a major commercial logging component. A bipartisan alternative measure is the National Forest Protection and Restoration Act (see sidebar), a law that would redirect resources toward widespread forest restoration efforts.&quotWe have steep elevation gradients in Colorado. That sorts out the forest types pretty clearly,&quot says Dr. Greg Aplet, forest ecologist with The Wilderness Society.It’s clear that Front Range and foothill ponderosa pine forests have been affected by fire suppression. Long-running efforts to quickly snuff out every blaze have resulted in a dense forest with a buildup of ladder fuels into a closed canopy that’s susceptible to catastrophic crown fires.But the conventional wisdom doesn’t apply to all forest types. There is little if any scientific evidence supporting claims that fire suppression has led to increased fire danger in subalpine forests, including the dense lodgepole pine and spruce and fir forests most common to Eagle County, according to Aplet.Pointing to numerous studies, including work by Colorado-based Forest Service researchers, Aplet says, &quotIt’s generally agreed that lodgepole and spruce-fir forests are not as affected by fire suppression. The need for thinning and treating fuel buildup outside the wildland-urban interface doesn’t really apply,&quot Aplet says. Thinning lodgepole stands can make the forest more flammable by letting in more sunlight and wind, which dries out the fuels, some studies show.Instead, most research makes it clear that the fire regime in lodgepole pine forests have always included high-intensity stand-replacement burns long before the miners set entire mountainsides ablaze in an effort to uncover the rock faces in their search for precious metals.Aplet emphasizes that does not obviate the need to protect communities by creating defensible space around homes, but says that efforts to treat widespread areas of lodgepole in the name of fire suppression could be doomed to failure and divert sorely needed funds away from the so-called Red Zone.As an example, he cites a recent proposal on the Pike and San Isabel National Forests to &quotpunch holes&quot in lodgepole forests on the slopes of Mount Elbert in the Box Creek area. Conceived as fire breaks, the clear cuts will do little to stop, or even slow a hot, fast-moving blaze, he says.&quotThe Forest Service is saying that 100 years of fire suppression has resulted in an unnaturally homogenous forest, but I find their arguments totally unconvincing,&quot Aplet says. &quotAll evidence suggests those forests have always been shaped by catastrophic stand-replacing fires.&quotOne of the most memorable examples of such a fire was the 1988 Yellowstone conflagration, when the flames jumped the Grand Canyon of the Yellowstone and spot fires ignited a half-mile and more away from the main blaze.Based on the evidence, it could be dangerously misleading and lead to a misplaced sense of security to suggest that small clear cuts or thinning projects could stop a major fire from running through lodgepole pines, although fire buffers around homes and communities can create islands where firefighter can work to protect lives and property.Another recent study on fuel buildup as a wildfire factor was conducted in the Klamath Mountains of California, where Dr. Dominick Dellasalla of the World Wildlife Federation says he &quotspecifically tested the hypothesis that unnatural fuel buildup is a major factor in the recent spate of Western wildfires.Currently under peer review, the study showed that weather and topography are much more significant factors.&quotWhat are the root causes? Why is the West burning?&quot Dellasalla asks rhetorically in a telephone interview. &quotLogging. We’ve made our forests more flammable by taking out the biggest, most fire resistant trees. We’ve turned our forests into fire bombs, and the logging roads are the fuses,&quot Dellasalla says.Many lodgepole pine forests in Colorado are reaching the age at which they will naturally start to fall apart, and the recent infestation by bark beetles is part of that process call it a natural thinning mechanism. As those trees fall, they may be replaced by stands of aspen, especially after a fire. In other areas, lodgepole stands are simply being invaded by spruce and fir in a natural forest succession.&quotYou can’t control in the midst of a beetle outbreak,&quot says Aplet. &quotIt won’t increase the vigor of the remaining trees. What it takes is more needles, and that just takes time.&quot In the first few years after a thinning effort, the fire danger increases with more fine fuels on the ground, he adds.While people have grown accustomed to seeing forests look a certain way, and would like to keep them that way by whatever means possible, that’s not a realistic expectation, most forest ecologists agree. Forest ecosystems are dynamic. Insect infestations and fire cycles are part of the bigger picture and probably will always play a bigger role in shaping the future of the forests than any human management efforts.


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