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Wildfire Warning
May 03, 2002

For related material go to NOVA’s Web site.

It’s only May, but near-record dry conditions are raising concern among forest fire officials, who are warning that this summer’s fire season could be another bad one. More than half the states across the country have regions that are currently labeled as drought areas by the U.S. Drought Monitor.

It’s particularly troubling to think that things could turn out as bad as the summer of 2000, when more than 8 million acres burned at a cost of $1.3 billion. That fire season is the spotlight of NOVA’s upcoming documentary "Fire Wars," which shows that today’s wildfires tend to be bigger and stronger because we’ve done too good a job of putting them out in the past.

fire shooters prescribed burn
image: National Interagency Fire Center

"The most fundamental thing we did in this forest was, we suppressed fire," says William Tweed, Chief Park Naturalist at Sequoia National Park. "We liked green. We liked cool. We liked pretty. Fire was ugly. Fire was perceived as dangerous. So we began a policy of total fire suppression in our sequoia groves. We got better and better at putting out fires."

The policy of "100 percent suppression" was set in place nationwide after a massive fire in 1910 burned 20 million acres across the country. Wildland firefighters were instructed to put out all fires all the time. What was not taken into consideration, however, is that fire is part of the Earth’s natural cycle. And as we got better at putting fires out, the forests grew thicker and thicker.

"People expect natural landscapes to be enduring and unchanging, and that’s almost never true," says Tweed. "Sooner or later this is all going to burn. It’s either going to burn during an event that we try to control or it’s going to burn on its own terms, on the hottest, driest, windiest day, in a far more destructive cycle."

Prevention Gets a Mascot

It wasn’t just the wildfire community that got swept up in the "100-percent suppression" frenzy. Federal firefighting organizations also wanted to get the word out to the public, and so needed a spokesperson.

The 1942 release of Bambi ("Run for your lives - FIRE!") provided just that for a spell, but eventually Disney decided to stop licensing the doe’s image for fire prevention ads. That’s when Smokey the Bear was born.

"People love animals, especially bears," says former Secretary of the Interior Bruce Babbitt. "We have a cultural tradition in which fire is the enemy. And so the bear becomes a symbol of the eternal historical struggle against sort of the biblical image of fire."

Smokey started out as a drawing, but his legacy truly came to life when a fire in New Mexico orphaned a bear cub, which was found clinging to what was left of a small tree. "Little Smokey" was saved by a local game warden and became the living embodiment of the 100-percent suppression cause.

These controlled events are called "prescribed burns"—when fire officials choose a section of forest to set fire to intentionally, hoping to keep it under control and thereby reduce the amount of "fuel" in the area. Controlling fires is hard, though, and sometimes prescribed burns get out of control, like the fire that burned 47,650 acres and destroyed 235 residences around Los Alamos, NM, in the summer of 2000.

One potential way around this problem is "thinning and burning"—taking down a select number of trees and removing underbrush in particularly dense forests before setting a prescribed burn. But the process is extremely expensive.

As for the 2002 fire season, warnings of above normal activity have been reported in eight out of the eleven regions that the National Interagency Fire Center splits the country into, and almost 450,000 acres have burned already. Still, one can never truly predict a fire season.

"The incredible thing about fire seasons is that you simply never know, " says Bruce Babbitt, former US Secretary of the Interior. "There were a number of indicators [in 2000], but no one in the spring can predict the intensity of the upcoming fire season."

Elsewhere on the Web

USDA Forest Service Fire and Aviation Management page - Contains fire information, statistics, fire outlook information, national fire maps and prevention tips.

National Interagency Fire Center - Gives the latest reported fire conditions, and has a picture gallery from the 2000 fire season.

FireWise - Valuable information for people who live or vacation in fire-prone areas.

National Fire Plan - a cooperative, long-term effort of the USDA Forest Service, Department of the Interior, and the National Association of State Foresters, designed to managing impacts of wildland fire to our Nation’s communities.

Incident Management Situation Report (pdf) - Updated every morning, the report gives info on the previous day’s fire activity nationwide, the fire outlook for the current day, and year-to-date statistics.

1910 Fire Offers Modern Clues -

by Brad Kloza

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