Tuesday, June 26, 2012
We anxiously watch the fires out west and keep our fingers crossed as they move closer to friends and family. We tell ourselves that the things don't matter. That the lives of the firefighters come first. That we will rebuild and it will be better. Still we hope for the best and wonder how we came to be in this situation.
When I was a kid, Smokey Bear was all the rage. Only I could prevent forest fires. I have the badge and doll to prove it! We put out fires. We manned fire watch towers, looking for the first wisp of smoke. We papered the forest with reminders to not smoke and to put out fires completely.
The National Park System (and probably the Forest Service) had a Let Fall policy. All the trees that died and fell stayed in place. In the sixties, the Yellowstone campground was a playground of fallen logs, stacked into mini cabins and teeter totters. It seemed like a grand plan. Keep Nature the way Nature was meant to be.
Unfortunately, Nature is not static. In the high and dry Western forests it doesn't decay or rot into soil with any speed. It dries and becomes highly flammable. More importantly, many of the diseases that caused all of those trees to die are things that are susceptible to fire or smoke. Stop the fires and the insects and parasites start to thrive and spread.
By the late seventies, you could see in many places in the West great swaths of dead pines killed by bud worm and bark beetle. Entire mountainsides and canyons first with brown needles and then silent. More fuel. Some areas started to log out the dead and diseased trees. They worked to contain the pests and salvage the forests. Many of those sites now stand today lush and green. Yet they continue to be threatened by the renewed spread of bud worm, bark beetle and dwarf mistletoe.
What we saw in the eighties with the great fires in Yellowstone and today with the wildfires in Colorado and Utah is the burn off of all of that fuel.
In the normal course of events, lightening would start a fire. The wind would whip that fire through the forest, flaring off dead needles and dead trees, but not lingering long enough to do real damage to the trees. The trunks might be scarred on one side but the other side would be find and the tree would survive. In some cases, germination of seeds requires or is aided by fire. The brush would be cleared, new seed would sprout and the forest would be renewed. The ecosystem evolved with fire and fire is a significant part of it.
But remember, we stopped the fires for years. We effectively built up a huge stockpile of firewood in our forests. Now when the fire starts it stays to burn up the fuel. When the fire lingers it gets hot enough to burn the live trees. The forest is leveled and the rejuvenation takes place in a much longer time frame. All of the reasons the wood doesn't decay (dry and cold) are the same reasons things grow slowly. Recovery is astounding, but slow.
Add in the vastly increased number of homes, structures and lives that are now contained in those forests, to that fuel and we have a very big set of challenges. While the natural ecology says we should let the fires burn, the human presence demands that we fight them. It is a complicated issue and it isn't going away any time soon.
So we pray for the safety of those putting their lives at risk fighting the wild fires, we hope for the best for those whose personal belongings are in the path of those fires and we look for ways to help those whose homes and businesses have already been destroyed.