Burning Issues: Integrating the Curriculum With a Fire Ecology Unit
Two Idaho classroom teachers share their strategies for integrating fire into the curriculum and meeting state mandated learning goals.
Fire is Elementary
by Kathy Comstock
The new school year is off to a blazing start in the fourth grade here at Andrus Elementary in Meridian, Idaho.
Thanks to my participation this summer in Project Learning Tree’s Burning Issues: Fire Ecology workshop, my students are fully immersed in our Earth Patrol reading unit. While I have always enjoyed teaching this particular unit in the past, never before has my class been so actively involved with the story. The FireWorks curriculum presented at the workshop has provided me with wonderful new hands-on, minds-on experiments and investigations that are enriching each and every one of my students as I integrate the content areas of Science, Math, and Reading.
Our opening story, The Great Yellowstone Fire, by Carole G. Vogel and Kathryn A. Goldner, is of particular interest to us, as we share the distinction and privilege of holding a small portion of Yellowstone National Park within our state’s border. Combine this with the fact that Idaho plays host to a fair share of the West’s summer wildfires, and one can easily see the relevance of fire ecology awareness for my students.
We began our explorations with some pre-reading activities to build background and activate prior knowledge. The Mystery Tree investigation allowed my students to become acquainted with many of the tree species that inhabit both Yellowstone and forests throughout Idaho that ultimately are affected by wildfires. Students were involved in science and math skills such as measurement, making observations, recording facts, interpreting data, and drawing conclusions based on the gathered data.
As an introduction to the fire triangle, students participated in a little gumdrop geometry where they discovered the three-legged triangle is the strongest shape. The knowledge gained from this exploration led us into a discussion of how fire requires three basic elements: fuel, oxygen, and heat to sustain itself. Like a triangle, if one of the “legs” is removed, the fire will collapse and go out. In order to prove this fact; we ventured into our first live fire experiment by testing the strength of the fire triangle. Matches were set up in two different positions, one pointing up and one down. After observing each one burn out, students were challenged to identify which basic element was missing from the fire triangle, causing the fire to go out. During the experiment, students timed the length of each burn, measured the length of the flame, and determined which direction the heat went. In addition, students recorded their findings as any good scientist would. Proving that oxygen is a necessary element required a candle, plate, and jar. Watching the candle burn uninhibited for awhile helped students see that with an abundant supply of oxygen, the fire will burn on and on. After placing a jar over the candle, students observed the flame slowly go out, clearly illustrating that without oxygen; a fire will quickly die. It would be easy enough to feed these facts to my students with the expectation they will be memorized. However, by engaging my students in experiments that allow them to observe and interact with real materials increases the likelihood they will remember and understand these important concepts.
Now as we begin our reading of the non-fiction piece, The Great Yellowstone Fire, which describes in vivid detail the events leading up to, during, and after the famous fires of 1988, my students are completely drawn into the story. Our pre-reading activities have helped to make the story come alive and deepen each studentís understanding of how fire behavior affected one of our country’s most beloved national parks. The reading material is helping us to see that while fire can have devastating effects, it can also be beneficial in ways we may not have known before. Students are learning that the charred remains are adding minerals back to the soil. With the canopy now more open, sunlight can get through to the forest floor, nurturing new plant growth. Animals, large and small, find it easier to forage for food.
Our post reading activities will include the creation of several matchstick forests. These live fire demonstrations will help students see first hand how the forest’s density, terrain’s slope, and weather conditions can influence fire behavior. Each of the previous experiences leading up to this grand finale, should enhance my students’ ability to analyze the outcome of each demonstration.
To further tie all these activities and experiences together, our Meridian School District fourth grade curriculum encourages us to explore the global concepts of change, perspective, properties, and interactions throughout the year. This highly interactive, integrated unit certainly gives us a wonderful opportunity to jump start our explorations and blaze our way into fourth grade.
Kathy Comstock is a 4th Grade Teacher at Cecil D. Andrus Elementary, Meridian Joint School District #2 in Idaho.
Fire in the Junior High Classroom
by Kris Stone
Junior high students are intrigued by fire and easily engage in learning about wildfires. I taught a fire ecology unit in eighth grade Earth Science. Students learned to apply concepts they had learned earlier such as weather, climate, maps, and topography to predicting the behavior of wildfires and prescribed burns. The unit took about two weeks and included modifications of activities from Project Learning Tree (PLT) and “Wildfires: Feel the Heat” (produced by Discovery Communications).
Students were introduced to wildfires using the Project Learning Tree Activity titled “I’d Like to Visit a Place Where…” Students described their favorite recreation place and how they would feel if it was burned by wildfire which was followed by a three-minute National Geographic video clip describing what it is like to fight wildfires.
Next, students completed two activities involving the fire triangle. The first activity “Living with Fire” (PLT) was modified to include two demonstrations showing how oxygen affects fire. The first demonstration involved placing a burning splint placed in a test tube filled with carbon dioxide produced by using baking soda and vinegar. The splint went out due to the lack of oxygen. The second demonstration involved placing a glowing splint placed into a test tube filled with oxygen produced by using manganese dioxide and hydrogen peroxide. The splint burst into flames due to the increase in oxygen. In another demonstration, students were asked to observed how long it took for three different types of matches to burn and determine how fuels affect burning. Finally, students observed a candle being put out by water to show how heat affects burning.
After the demonstrations, students were divided into five groups and each group was given the same number of matches but different types of materials to burn. Each group’s task was to burn as much of the material they could with the matches they had. Some groups had only large fuels to burn while others had damp or wet materials. Only one group had materials that burned easily. At the end of the activity, we discussed how oxygen, heat, and/or fuels affected whether or not the materials they were given burned.
Next, students learned about wildfire behavior by building models of forests using stick matches, clay and cake pans (Wildfire: Feel the Heat). Students were divided into teams. The teams built forests that varied in match density, match size, slope, topography, litter, and moisture. Each group recorded how long it took for their match forest to burn and noted the percent of matches that burned before the fire when out. Students then tried to determine the affect of density, slope, topography, and moisture by comparing the burn times of each forest.
In the final activity, students used the interactive “Burning Issues” CD produced by the BLM and Florida State University. They learned to identify the proper environmental conditions for conducting a prescribed burn; measure and control environmental variables such as time of year, moisture and wind speed in test plots; compare a successful and unsuccessful burns; and describe problems and benefits of prescribed burning.
Students enjoyed learning about fire because they find it fascinating plus they were able to participate in a variety of activities. I liked this unit because it allowed students to apply some of the concepts they learned previously in Earth Science by participating in activities that grabbed and held their attention!
Kris Stone teaches at Riverglen Junior High in Boise, Idaho. In 2002 she was named Idaho Environmental Education Teacher of the Year by the Idaho Environmental Education Association.
Activities for grade K-12
(Adapted from Fire in Pacific Northwest Ecosystems, Environmental Education Association of Oregon and Pacific Northwest Coordinating Group, 1997.)
Compiled by Susan Duncan, Assistant Director of Environmental Education
Washington Forest Protection Association
Gather students into a sharing circle. Suggest that fire can be a useful tool. People of many different traditions use fire for celebrations. Describe one example such as birthdays by burning candles on a cake. Invite the students to imagine and describe how burning candles smell, look, taste, sound and feel. Ask students to explain how they keep the fire safe.
Give the students drawing materials to create a picture of another kind of special day where fire is used to celebrate e.g. Olympic Torch, wedding, holidays, etc. Invite them to describe the sights, smells, sounds, tastes and textures in their picture. Also, ask them to explain how the fire is kept safe.
Have students select and draw an insect they might find in a forest with its food source and shelter. Ask them to think about what the insect might do if a fire passed through the forest as they share their drawing with a partner.
Explain that fire tends to favor insects with wings. They can fly away when the flames begin and return afterwards to take advantage of the decaying wood for their new nests and shelter. Flying insects are often attracted to heat and light. Because the sweet tree sap, leaves and bark that attract many crawling insects are burned in a fire, many insects such as caterpillars cannot find enough food in a burned area to survive and will need to wait for new plants to grow. Once the rain moistens the burned layers, and the soil begins to be broken up by burrowing mammals, insects at every stage of life begin to find food and shelter. Then, the woodpeckers and other wildlife, which depend on them for food, return as well.
(People have used fire to protect themselves from unwanted flying insects. Smoke from fire can be used to “smoke” meat so it is protected from insects that lay their eggs in rotting meat. This kind of meat is often called, “jerky,” and can be eaten by people later. Some people still use smoke to keep bees away from them so they can collect their honey. A smoky campfire can also keep bugs away.)
Add the following sentence to their picture, and ask students to finish writing it:
“When a fire comes, this insect would________________________________________, and then,________________________________.”
A Tool for Growing New Plants
Fire can be a useful tool if it is under control. Explain that people have used “controlled” fires to burn trees in areas where they hunt for food or graze horses. People have carefully used fire to burn the shape of the inside of a canoe into a log from a cedar tree. Controlled fires help prairie grasses and huckleberry bushes grow. They also burn dead and diseased trees or tall brush that can move fires up to the tops of large trees whose bark might otherwise have protected them from the fire.
Fire helps put nutrients back in the soil for new plants to grow and opens the forest so more sunlight reaches the forest floor.
Fire helps new plants in the forest three ways:
• Opens the area around the seed to sunlight
• Removes the “coat” on some seeds so they become moist and begin growing
• Improves the quality of the soil for the seed to grow by providing fresh nutrients and eliminating diseases.
Hold up a seed cone from a pine tree for the students. Explain that the cone has more than one seed and could grow many trees. Act out a controlled fire passing through a forest of tall healthy trees interspersed with dead trees. The dead trees burn to create soil and open up the forest to the light of a student that represents the sun. Other students acting as seeds from the cone remove their ìcoatsî and begin to grow with their toes absorbing nutrients like roots.
Fire’s Effects on Streams
Ask students to compare and contrast the habitat of two crayfish: one that lives in a mountain stream with natural seasonal changes and another crayfish whose forested stream has recently been changed by fire. Make a class list that shows the comparisons discussed.
Discuss the effects of losing trees to fire in more detail: water temperature (increases), sedimentation (increases), amount of water flow (increases) and amount of nutrients (increase).
Effects of increased sedimentation:
Reduction in size of territory
Difficulty seeing food in water clouded with sediment
Fewer resting and hiding places as sediment fills bottom of stream
Effects of temperature increase:
Less oxygen in the water
More prone to disease
Effects of increase water flow:
Washes away logs to hide under
Difficult to find safe place to rest
Effects of more nutrients:
More algae, which can reduce oxygen even more
More insects on which to feed
To summarize, invite students to write a news flash and give a brief report about something that is happening to the crayfish because of changes in its habitat due to the fire.
Fire and Water
Cooling fire with water is one essential step for putting out forest fires so when it rains firefighters, especially those scooping water from nearby lakes with helicopters are grateful. The other two essential steps for extinguishing forest fires include: building a fire line, which removes any fuel the fire could use, and smothering the fire so it can not get any oxygen.
To learn these essential forest firefighting skills, play a math game called, “Water, Dirt, Fire Line” with the following rules:
• Play in groups of two.
• Count, “1,2,3” and then, say one way to help extinguish the fire (Water, Dirt, Fire Line.)
• Keep track of how many times each word is picked by keeping a record in a table.
After 5 rounds, write right down the probability for each word being picked. (Make a fraction with the number of times the word is selected over the total number of words said. In this case, 2 people times 5 rounds equals 10 total words. Fore example, read it out loud as “Water was said 3 times out of 10. “)
As a class, compare the probability that each word would be selected and determine which word was selected most often.
Discuss the probability that using only one method would put out the forest fire. Then, discuss what could be done to increase the chances of putting out a forest fire.
Succession after a Forest Fire
After a forest fire, the environment will pass thorough a series of stages as it recovers. The amount of time for recovery depends on the duration and temperature of the fire. The stages vary from place to place, but generally the environmental conditions favor the following types of plants and animals:
0-5 years -Grasses, wildflowers and ferns thrive on the nutrients provided to the soil from the ash. Shrub seedlings begin to grow from root systems. Tree seedlings begin to grow. Snags provide habitat.
6-25 years-Shrubs and tree seedling grow larger and provide shade to grasses and other plants. Plenty of berries leaves and seeds for birds and mammals.
26-50 years-Deciduous trees such as alder and maple shade most of the forest and conifers reach the canopy.
51-150 years-Deciduous trees begin to mature and die allowing confers to grow in the sunlight and become the dominant species.
Conifers make up the canopy layer,
Use these brief descriptions to infer what kinds of wildlife and plants might be present in a recovering forest as it passes through these stages, draw a series of forest pictures like a comic book that shows these changes over time.
Fire and Weather
Invite students to create a diagram a healthy forest and describe its influence on the weather. Invite them to create a second diagram to help them answer the question, “What direct relationships exist between forest fires and weather?” Here’s a list of variables to consider:
Humidity Soil Temperature
Wind Speed Rainfall
Air temperature Snowmelt
Fire: A Prescription for Diversity
The natural forces of earth, wind, fire and water combine to create diverse habitats for many species. Plants and animals adapted to the forests of the Pacific Northwest have experienced the effects of naturally occurring fires for thousands of years. How much a forest burns varies based on its topography, amount of fuel and weather. Fire creates a “mosaic” of forests in many different stages: grass, wildflowers and ferns; shrubs and small saplings; mature deciduous trees; and mature conifers. This mosaic creates edges and variations in habitat so diverse species can survive.
Prescribed fires are used by foresters to recreate a variety of habitats or “mosaics”, which were historically created by fire. Prescribed fires are planned by professionals and occur in the right place at the right time. Three kinds of prescribed fires are often used:
Slash Burning – removes fuels after trees have been harvested and prepares the ground for planting new seedlings.
Underburning – a fire that burns below the tree canopy to reduce the competition for sunlight between the brush and tree seedlings, reduces insect populations, opens cones (in the pine forest) and reduces fuels that might otherwise cause the canopy to burn.
Range Burning – a low intensity fire that burns unwanted grass, shrubs, noxious weeds and trees to improve the quality of food for range animals and wildlife.
Select a forest or range area familiar to the students, and discuss how the diversity of species in the habitat might be improved using prescribed fire. Work in small groups to draw a before and after map of the area noting the location and kind of prescribed burn recommended. As each group to describe the mosaic of habitats that will be created by their plan with the class while making a class list of the advantages and disadvantages of prescribed burns in the area.
Wildfires and Urban Populations
Protecting a home from wildfire can be as simple as 1,2,3, but steep slopes and windswept exposures add extra challenge. Fires grow with fuel, oxygen and heat. Brainstorm how a home could be landscaped to reduce a fire’s access to fuel, oxygen and heat.
By setting up a zone of defense, a home can be protected from wildfire. Invite students to create a model with the landscaping for a home in a fire prone area. The model would clearly shows these three zones:
Zone 1- Moist and Trim
This is the last line of defense before the house needs to begin at the house and go 50 feet out. Trees, shrubs and plants need to be low growing and at least 10 feet away from the house. Plants that hold a lot of water can be used to make a greenbelt and fire resistant plants that do not have resin in them are best.
Zone 2 – Low and Sparse
This is the second line of defense and extends 100 feet away from the house. Native plants and low growing shrubs that are drought tolerant. It is also important to remove any dry leaves and other flammable material.
Zone 3 – High and Clean
This is the first line of defense. Native trees that have been thinned and dry debris on the ground removed. Ten feet spaces between trees and branched trimmed to ten feet can prevent fire from spreading.
Economies Battle the Bugs
A 450 year old Douglas fir that is 10 feet in diameter can be killed by a fire, but the wood beneath its charred surface is marketable, at least until the bugs begin to drill holes through it. Many board feet of lumber were salvaged from the burned timber of the 1933 Tillamook Burn. The amount of timber killed from the fire was equal to all the lumber used in the 48 states in 1932.
Invite students to write a position paper by researching current issues regarding salvaging timber that has been damaged by fires and the existing demand for lumber. Ask them to note the tradeoffs and costs.
History of Fire Suppression
Use drama to tell the story of fire suppression. Assign a group of three students to create a “tableau” or still life representation of how people have decide to manage the actual and potential risk of wildfire using the following timeline:
1873 American Association for the Advancement of Science lobbied for laws to preserve timber. Congress passed the Timber Culture Act, which promotes tree planting.
1898 Theodore Roosevelt created the Division of Forestry headed by Gifford Pinchot. Pinchot advocated multiple use of the forests and the US Forest Service began the policy of fire prevention and total fire suppression.
1916 US Department of the Interior- National Park Service was established. Policy was to maintain a strict fire suppression policy while USFS allowed fires to burn in remote areas.
1919 USFS adopted policy of intensive fire suppression.
1924 Clark-McNary Act expanded the Weeks Act by providing a solid basis for federal and state cooperation in wildfire protection, production of trees for reforestation and expanded fire protection to private lands.
1925 Cooperative agreement between USFS and War Department of 1921 expanded for airplane surveillance in Washington, Oregon, Idaho and Montana.
1935 USFS adopts ì10 a.m. policyî after three bad fires. The policy stated that foresters would strive to contain all fires by 10 a.m. the day after they started.
1940 First parachute jump on a forest fire.
1948 Smokey Bear came into being.
1959 A forest fire laboratory was established in Macon, Georgia to work on fire problems nationally, but was to specifically look at fire in hardwoods.
1963 Leopold Report acknowledged the historical role of fire and advised starting planned ignition burns to maintain flora and fauna.
1973 The new National Fire Danger Rating System is put into widespread use.
1978 USFS begins the ìlet burnî program for naturally occurring fires in wilderness areas.
1990 Yellowstone National Park begins re-evaluation of ìnatural fireî policy.
1994 Fourteen fire fighters killed on Storm King Mountain Fire in Colorado. Fires in Wenatchee, Washington burned 135,000 acres and destroyed 22 homes.
2000 President Clinton requested a report whose finding led to the adoption of the National Fire Plan. The plan recommended active management in the form of mechanical thinning and prescribed fires to return forests on federal lands to historic levels of density and species diversity.
Air Quality Debate
Depending on topography and weather, air quality can be significantly impacted by fire. Foresters planning prescribed fires must consider a variety of factors including both locations of urban centers as well as protecting visibility in wilderness areas and national parks.
Invite student to prepare for a debate regarding the prescribed burn of a forested area to reduce fuel below the canopy in an area near a national park. After multiple options are proposed and considered, work as a class to reach consensus on the best practice for the area at this particular time.
Fire ecologists estimate that Oregon and Washington combined have about 10 million acres of Condition Class 3 forestland that has the highest risk for crown fires. Planning for fire can prevent tragic loss as well as sustain the natural benefits fire has provided to the unique ecosystems of the Pacific Northwest. Invite one half of the class to work with in small groups to make a flow chart that shows the risks to the environment from a wildfire in a wilderness area. Invite the other half of the class to work in pairs to create a flow chart showing the risks to people from a wildfire in an urban area. Have groups compare their flowcharts and determine what risks are could be controlled and how. Work with students to identify people and organizations in the community and describe the active roles that can be taken to control the risks associated with fire.
Record setting fires in Northwest forests in recent summers have made fire management a top priority of land managers.
Students can use the debate to learn about forest ecosystems and public policy.
by Valerie Vogrin
Fire has been an important ecological process for thousands of years in Northwest woodlands. Fire has been responsible for the species composition and structure of many of our forest types. Almost all of the Douglas fir old-growth forests west of the Cascades originated from historic fires. At present, however, forest fires pose numerous difficult problems for foresters and policy makers. According to The New York Times, by mid-August this year fires in the West have burned an area larger than Connecticut and Rhode Island combined.
Native American Use of Fire
Native Americans had a great respect for fire and made frequent use of it. They used smoke to flush bees from their hives and bears from their dens and to temporarily chase away mosquitoes and other pests. They often used fire to encourage the growth of plants that were eaten by animals they hunted. Controlled burns kept grasslands fertile so buffalo would be attracted to the area.
The impact of a fire on a forest ecosystem depends on its intensity. Hotter, longer lasting fires have more extensive impacts than cooler, brief fires. In low to moderate fires, seeds and roots will take hold soon after, sending up new shoots. Plant nutrients in the form of ash are put back into the soil, resulting in rich new plant growth. Grasses and sedges quickly sprout. Hotter fires heat the ground so much that all plant life is destroyed. Soil and plant recovery takes years because roots die in the fire. New growth depends on unburned seeds buried in the organic layer of soil, or on seeds brought in from other areas by animals or wind. Eventually most of the same pants will return to the burned area but in a different growth pattern. Some animal species will thrive in the open conditions and others will lose their habitats through fire.
Fire has many natural benefits. Frequent low-intensity fires help prevent the build-up of materials that can cause a large fire. Some trees, such as the lodgepole pine, giant sequoia, longleaf pine, ponderosa pine and Douglas fir need sunlight to grow and are therefore helped by ground fires which clear out dense forest growth. The lodgepole pine needs the heat from a fire to open its cones and release its seeds. As forests burn, fire releases minerals from wood and grasses, breaking them down and returning them to the soil so plant roots can absorb them and grow more rapidly.
Fire sets in motion a fairly predictable process of forest redevelopment with clear, identifiable stages. Forest succession proceeds from the Forbs stage (the first five years) – when small plants and mosses germinate and shrubs and seedlings begin to establish – through the shrub stage, the young forest stage, and finally to the mature forest stage (51-150 years), in which a few large evergreen species dominate the ecosystem.
Accompanying these stages are changes in the wildlife populations. In the Forbs stage insects, small rodents, and songbirds are the primary residents. As the ecosystem grows more complex, a greater variety of animals make their home in the forest, including large mammals such as beavers and deer and the even larger animals that eat them, such as cougar and bear. Some forests eventually develop into a climax forest (50-300 years). In a climax forest fewer big trees take up more area so there are fewer trees per acre. Dead trees provide additional nesting sites and the ecosystem becomes even more diverse.
Historically, fires in Westside Douglas-fir forests were infrequent, with fire intervals averaging 100 to 400 years. These fires were intense and large, replacing entire forest stands. In contrast, fire was a frequent source of disturbance in the ponderosa pine and mixed-conifer forests east of the Cascades. In any given stand, they occurred regularly in intervals ranging from 3 to 25 or more years.
Consequences of Fire Management
At the beginning of the twentieth century, the conventional wisdom was that fire was bad (or even evil) – something to be wiped out. Gifford Pinchot, the first head of the U.S. Forest Service, said “There is no doubt that forest fires encourage a spirit of lawlessness and a disregard for property rights.” This kind of thinking led to a half-century of aggressive fire suppression and prevention.
After World War II, efficient and expensive fire-fighting technologies were devised, including bombers being refit as water bombers. Campaigns were developed that taught people about fire prevention. In 1942 Smokey the Bear became the symbol of forest prevention. These campaigns reinforced the idea in the public mind that all forest fires were bad.
Meanwhile, the fire policies of the first half of the century were having severe, unintended results. Forest suppression measures have increased both fire hazard and fire risk on a monumental scale. As fires were prevented and suppressed, shade-tolerant tree species regenerated under the pine, and dead wood and needles began to accumulate. The forests became denser, a more continuous ladder of fuels was formed, and the large mature Pines became more stressed and susceptible to insects and disease due to competition with other vegetation for water.
When fires did occur, they were often large and more intense than the historic norm because the grass ignited low shrubs, which in turn spread flames to the understory trees. Because of their thin bark, the understory trees were less fire-resistant, and when they burned, their flames were much more likely to reach the crowns of the large pines, destroying them as well. Fire ecologists view much of the Northwest’s forestland – particularly on the dry east side of the Cascades, in the high Cascades and in the southwest Coast Range – as having moved dangerously away from its natural condition.
Additionally, the combination of more human-caused fires (twice as many as lightning-caused) and a strict policy of suppression have interrupted the natural process of forest succession. With fires occurring of uncharacteristic scope and intensity, forest habitats are more drastically altered. By disturbing the natural fire process humans have inadvertently changed the nature and composition of the forest.
The Role of Logging
Though timber companies have a strong interest in wanting to limit the damage caused by forest fires, logging practices contribute to the problem. Commercial logging often removes only the most marketable portion, the tree trunks, leaving slash behind. This highly flammable debris — saplings and piles of twigs, limbs, and needles — is additional fire fuel. Soon more prime fuel is on the way, as weeds and bushes invade the cleared land. When loggers remove the largest trees, the overstory canopy is reduced, exposing the forest floor to increased wind and sun. Surface temperatures increase and relative humidity decreases, with the end result being hotter, drier fuels.
Even logging roads have to take some of the blame. In 1999 the U.S. Forest Service (USFS) estimated that there were over 93,000 miles of logging roads on forest service land alone in the Pacific Northwest. Land cleared for roads is vulnerable to invasive weeds and brush and if the roads aren’t adequately maintained more debris and weeds accumulate.
A report submitted to Congress in 1996 by the Sierra Nevada Ecosystem Project (SNEP) and the USFS indicated that “timber harvest, through its effects on forest structure, local microclimate, and fuel accumulation, has increased fire severity more than any other recent human activity.”
Forest Fires in the New Millennium
Large, severe, summer wildfires seem to be a recurring pattern. Two of the last three summers have been among the worst fires years on record. In recent years. The 1998 wildfires in Yellowstone National Park, which lasted for months and burned nearly a million acres, started a national dialogue on fire. Controversy over those fires persists and questions remain about the place of fire in managing lands. How much should we let nature take its course? Can prescribed fires serve the same purpose as natural fires? What do we do about lands in urban settings where liability concerns often prevent managers from letting fires burn?
Following the severe fires of 2000, President Clinton requested a report whose findings led to the adoption of a National Fire Plan. The plan recommended active management in the form of mechanical thinning and prescribed fires to return forests on federal lands to historic levels of density and species composition. The plan noted, however, that reversing the effects of a century of aggressive fire suppression would be a long, slow process – some experts estimate 50 to 100 years.
There is much disagreement regarding the interpretation of the plan. The Bush administration is focusing on thinning as a solution, to the extent that the president has asked Congress to relax environmental laws to enable the timber industry to increase logging of national forest land. President Bush has asked that provisions of the National Environmental Policy Act be waived to hasten approval of thinning operations. Many environmentalists are fighting this move, claiming that it is politically motivated, and that selective thinning might actually increase the risk of forest fire.
There is no consensus on the plan. Some environmentalists believe the safest course is to stop interfering with nature altogether, to the extent that we shouldn’t attempt to control wildfires. Many land managers and environmentalists (including the Sierra Club) promote the return of controlled burns, arguing that controlled burns reduce the chance of larger, more destructive fires. They also open up an area to sunlight and help to control insects and tree diseases, restoring the natural role of fire. While controlled burning might be a sound solution, there is no financial motivation for it to be used.
Others note that the repeated use of fire many endanger watersheds through erosion and could harm soils, reduce the natural beauty of the area, create air pollution, and decrease the timber supply. Prescribed burns also have immediate risks which must be weighed against the risk of high-intensity wildfires. In 1993, what was planned as a two-acre controlled burn near Meadow Creek near Lake Wenatchee seared 350 acres. Putting it out required bulldozers, aircraft and hundreds of firefighters. The effort cost $500,000.
Prescribed burning also runs into legal barriers. Laws and policies also collide with fire management efforts. The huge amount of forestland in need of prescribed burning is in conflict with the federal Clean Air Act (1970). Prescriptive burning can also run up against the Endangered Species Act (1973). The places where spotted owls are doing best are also the places that are most susceptible to fire.
This isn’t a controversy that can be ignored. Fire ecologists estimate that in Oregon and Washington combined there are 10 to 12 million acres of Condition Class 3 forestland (the highest risk of fire, and when fires occur they will be intense, with a high probability that they will reach the crowns of the larger trees and kill them). Meanwhile, fuel loads continue to increase as underbrush grows while mature trees continue to weaken. Whether the cause is lightning striking or a careless person throwing a lighted cigarette out a car window, forest fires are inevitable.
Valerie Vogrin is the Environmental Education Program Coordinator for the Washington Forest Protection Association in Olympia, Washington.