The West is Burning Up
COULD THE 1910 FIRE HAPPEN AGAIN?
by Gifford Pinchot
Evergreen Magazine, Winter Edition 1994-1995
YES, we could have another forest fire in the West the size of the 1910 Fire. But we are better at detecting fires than we were in 1910, and we have better equipment and better road access, so the losses might not be as great In other words, events would probably play themselves out differently.
One man's opinion; but in this case, the man is an expert.
His name is Bob Mutch, and he has been fighting forest fires since 1953, the summer he joined a blister rust crew in Idaho. While on the fire lines, he met some smokejumpers and decided he wanted to jump. The following summer, he did.
Smokejumpers are paratroopers who fight forest fires. They jump into landing zones near fires, providing a first?strike capability that often makes the difference between "a ten o'clock fire" and one that burns for weeks or months. Smokejumpers pride themselves on being able to control a fire by ten in the morning. Hence, a ten o'clock fire.
The tools smokejumpers use follow them through the sky on parachutes dropped from their jump aircraft. It is an exact replica of war, complete with the opportunity to die in the line of duty.
Once you have been a smokejumper, you are always a smokejumper, even after you are too old to jump and must find a new line of work. There are even reunions where old smokejumpers gather, like old soldiers, to talk about the big battles they fought and won.
Mutch jumped onto his first forest fire in 1954. He was a junior at Albion College in Michigan, stationed for the summer at the smokejumper base in Grangeville, Idaho. He was so taken by the immense beauty of the northern Rockies that he decided to make fire management his life's work. He retired earlier this year, ending a distinguished career with the U.S. Forest Service. In his last assignment, he was research applications leader at the Intermountain Fire Sciences Laboratory in Missoula. He is now doing consulting work for others who are trying to understand where and how to use fire as a forest management tool.
Only the wind was missing
The best descriptions of what smokejumpers and fire managers do are contained in Young Men and Fire, the late Norman Maclean's remarkable book about the Mann Gulch fire that burned in Montana in 1949. Twelve smokejumpers died there, less than two hours after they stepped into the skies above the smoke below. A thirteenth local fire-fighter also died in the blaze.
Maclean's search for answers to unanswered questions began within months of the 1949 tragedy and continued until his death in 1990. In Young Men andFire [See Evergreen, March/ April, 1994] readers are introduced to the science of fire fighting. We learn there are formulas for calculating how fast a fire will travel up or downhill, depending on how dry it is, how hot it is, how hard the wind is blowing, and the type and amount of timber - live and dead - the fire is consuming.
The Intermountain Fire Sciences Laboratory worked out these formulas, using scale-model wind tunnels to replicate what happens when big fires and big winds swoop down on forests with blinding speed. In Young Men and Fire, we learn that in a race against death, the will to live is no match for blinding speed. And from Mutch, we learn that in 1994 we veered very close to 1910. Only the wind was missing.
"If we had experienced sixty and seventy-mile-an-hour winds for twentyfour hours, as was the case in 19 10, I think we might have seen fires on the same scale," Mutch said. "Especially on the Kootenai National Forest in northwest Montana where we saw lightning start 160 new fires in one night."
John Bernard Leiberg
What is happening on the Kootenai is happening all over the West Forests are dying, a result of prolonged drought, intentional exclusion of forest fires and early-day logging practices that profoundly changed the structure of forests.
Before settlement began western ponderosa pine forests were not as dense as they are today. There were fewer trees with more open spaces - prairies and savannahs - between the trees that were here. Fires burned more frequently, which helped maintain the open spaces, while minimizing the accumulation of woody debris on the forest floor.
Much more is known about these early forests than is generally believed. John Bernard Leiberg, a Europeantrained forester with the U.S. Geological Survey, surveyed northern Idaho's Coeur d'Alene Mountains in the summer of 1895, and in subsequent years, conducted equally detailed examinations of forests in western Montana, western Oregon and Washington, and all of California. He died in 1913, but his vividly written narratives survive in a series of U.S. Department of Interior reports presented to Congress in 1898, 1899 and 1900.
The section headings in each of his reports reveal an attention to detail rarely attributed to early-day foresters: topography, water supply, soil, forest conditions, aspect of the forest, amount of available timber, soundness of the timber, means of transportation of lumber, local demand for lumber, timber cutting, present condition of forests, fires, effect of fire on reproduction, agricultural lands and mineral resources.
Each report also included a set of tables summarizing his survey work: list of tree and vegetation species, proportion of species by forest zone, size and age of trees - by zone, second growth and old growth; amount and value of timber ?sawtimber, railroad ties and telegraph poles; destruction by fire - sawtimber, railroad ties and telegraph poles.
In his travels, Leiberg found abundant evidence that most of what burned in 1910, and re-burned in subsequent years, had also burned much earlier.
"Forest fires occurred in the Priest River Basin years ago," he wrote in his 1897 report. "About one hundred and fifty years ago the area surrounding the lower and, in part, the upper [Priest] lake was burned over to the extent of more than 60 percent. Later, a large tract south of the lower lake shared the same fate. This is proved by the large quantities of young growth, less than 100 years old, that exist in many places with very old trees in their midst."
Leiberg found evidence of similar burns in western Montana's Bitterroot Valley, which became the eastern-most edge of the 1910 fire.
"Above the zone of the yellow pine and extending to about 6,500 feet elevation there is often found an excessively close growth of lodgepole pine ... The growth is a replacement of an older forest of subalpine fire and white-bark pine burned off a hundred or more years ago ... The closeness of the growth is very striking. The trees frequently stand so close that it is difficult for a man even on foot to force his way between them. The individual trees are always of slender growth, but of no great height, and the majority of them are short lived."
The lands Leiberg examined varied widely in appearance, from brush fields grown up in the aftermath of great fires, to forests that contained as few as 10 or as many as 2,000 trees per acre. He attributed these differences to the frequency and intensity of past fires, and he wrote detailed explanations of the role fire was playing in clearing away what was dead or dying.
What concerned Leiberg far more than evidence of great past fires was his discovery that Priest River area pioneers were setting fire to newly- designated federal forest reserves to protest their creation by Congress.
"It has been a common occurrence to hear such remarks as, 'If the Government intends to guard and to preserve the timber from fires and prevent unlimited cutting, we will try to burn up what is left as soon as possible'; or, 'Since the reserve has been set aside, every prospector carries an extra box of matches along to start forest fires with.'
"These sayings," Leiberg wrote, "were not made in a spirit of bravado, but with the conviction that the course outlined was the proper one to pursue to show their disapproval of Government interference in what they have heretofore considered their rights, namely to cut, slash or burn, as convenience or fancy might dictate."
In summary remarks in his Priest River report, Leiberg revealed much about the mindset present among early-day foresters who would later become rangers in Gifford Pinchot's U.S. Forest Service.
"Gigantic and appalling"
"Mere reserve lines will have no effect whatever in preventing the destruction so long as public sentiment regarding forest preservation remains indifferent," he wrote. "The forest?fire evil is gigantic and appalling. If not checked, within twentyfive years there will be no accessible forests to furnish lumber products between the Rocky Mountains and the Cascades except such tracts as are under private ownership. Up to the present time the public has not suffered any particular inconvenience from the fires, but signs are rapidly multiplying that a pinch is beginning to be felt in the home timber supply. If the next ten years see as large a percentage of burnt-over tracts as the last decade, the pinch will become decidedly painful. To combat the evil, heroic measures are necessary."
What Leiberg and others wanted most would - in the aftermath of the 1910 fire - become public policy. Fire would be driven from the forest, no matter what.
The forest health problem
How a near-century of publicly mandated fire exclusion has affected forests is now most visible in Oregon and Washington, central and northern Idaho, and western Montana. Ponderosa forests that for thousands of years reseeded themselves naturally have given way to fir forests which overtook open spaces once kept clear by fires caused by lightning, or set by Indians who used fire to sculpt their lands in the images of their cultures.
To make matters worse, early-day loggers and farmers removed too many big trees, making it difficult for ponderosa to reseed itself. Fir trees that had been kept at bay by fires invaded open areas once occupied by pine. Now these forests are collapsing under their own weight Put simply, there are too many trees for the ground they occupy. Crowded together in areas where once only a tenth as many trees grew, they have no chance for survival. Years of drought have turned a bad situation into a disaster now widely referred to as "the forest health problem."
For Mutch and others who study fire, it is a perplexing problem with scientific and political underpinnings. On the one hand, there is the very real fear a 1910-scale fire could ravage these dead and dying forests. On the other hand, there is the knowledge fire, used on a limited scale in combination with forestry techniques, could actually help clear out some of the dead and dying trees, paving the way for a return to more natural growing conditions.
The space between these alternatives is filled with voices arguing about how best to tackle "the forest health problem." Some argue that letting forest fires burn is the natural thing to do. Others say harvest what is dead and dying, then replant in ways that will bring back the forests that were here before white settlement began.
"A bad idea"
In some ways, not much has changed since Gifford Pinchot and Bill Greeley first argued about who could be trusted to do what is right in forests. Those who trust people trust foresters to do the right thing in forests, and those who distrust people trust fire.
"A good deal of what is wrong in forests today is the result of what people unknowingly did wrong in the past," Mutch concedes. "It is not hard to see why many now believe the best thing to do in forests is to get out of the way and let nature take its course."
But, Mutch adds, letting nature takes its course is a bad idea. "The worst has already occurred. We harvested too many trees in the wrong places, and we excluded fires where allowing them to burn would have cleared out dead and dying trees. What's needed now is a combination of logging and fire management techniques that will gradually reduce the danger of catastrophic fire, opening the door for an eventual return to forest conditions more like those that were present before white settlement began."
Mutch admits his viewpoint will not sound logical to generations of Americans that grew up with Smokey Bear and learned that only they could prevent forest fires.
"We've done a great job of making the public aware of their role in preventing forest fires," he says. "Now we need to do the same good job to help the public understand the role fire plays in maintaining forest health. What has been missing is an understanding of the inevitability of fire. We do not live in a risk?free world, and where forest fires are concerned, the question is not 'if but 'when' they will occur."
Even so, Mutch believes deliberately setting fires or allowing lighting-caused fires to burn unchecked must be done under very carefully controlled conditions.
The sickest forest
"Eighty years of fire exclusion have left us with enormous accumulations of dead woody debris in our forests," he explained. "If we allow fires to run wild in these forests, we'll destroy the very things we are trying to save, including an enormous amount of fish and wildlife habitat In many areas, we need to harvest some trees first to reduce the amount of dead and dying biomass."
But others disagree, and in eastern Oregon salvage timber sales are routinely appealed by environmental groups that believe allowing fires to burn unchecked is the only solution to the forest health problem. Mutch shakes his head in disbelief.
"Recently, I saw the Blue Mountains for the first time in several years," he said. "I could not believe my eyes. It is one of the sickest forests on the continent Hundreds of thousands of acres of dead and dying timber just waiting for the conflagration. Salvage logging would substantially reduce the risk."
Eastern Oregon's forest fires are not the gentle under-burns they were before white settlement began. Flames frequently shoot 200 to 300 feet into the sky, and in several watersheds important to spawning fish, even the soil has been cooked.
Years spent on fire lines have made Mutch a strong believer in the importance of preventive action.
"I hope it doesn't take another 1910 fire to arouse the public," he laments. "After big fires burn, we can only pick up the pieces. The work is not very satisfying."