The Heat Is Online

Experts See Beginning of New Era Of Mega-Fires

Era of the Big Fire Is Kindled at West's Doors

The New York Times, June 23, 2002

WINTHROP, Wash., June 22 — The fires came early this year to the West, chasing people out of valleys in Colorado, rousting animals from late slumber in Alaska, choking the sky with smoke in Arizona woods that have so little moisture they seem kiln-dried.

The price of holding back nature has come home, fire officials say. A century-long policy of knocking down all fires has created fuel-filled forests that burn hotter and faster than ever. The era of big fires — and with it, the need for big government to contain them — is at hand, many firefighters say.

Already, with 1.9 million acres burned by the first day of summer, wildfires across the West are burning twice the acreage of the 10-year average for this time of year.

A convergence of events — drier forests, higher temperatures, a yearslong drought and more people living in places where fire has long made a home — is likely to keep armies of yellow-shirted firefighters busier than ever, at a cost to taxpayers of $2 billion a year.

"We're at the mercy of Mother Nature right now," said Larry Humphrey, incident commander of the Rodeo fire, Arizona's largest. "There's not a whole lot we can do."

Some say the fires are a harbinger. "These catastrophic fire seasons are going to become the norm," said Bruce Babbitt, the former Interior secretary and Arizona governor. "The question is, what are we going to do about it? Can we learn to live in the woods, when in most of these areas there aren't even building codes?"

One central question is whether the government should be more willing to start controlled fires, to burn off built-up fuels. But the policy is vexed, in part because some of the biggest recent fires were government-started blazes that got out of control — and because growing numbers of people and homes are in harm's way if controlled burns jump the rails.

The fires this time are also prompting calls to enact a new social contract. People living in fire zones would have to do preventive maintenance to expect government help when the woods catch fire. The insurance industry, which has forced a change among home developers by making it more costly to live in flood zones, is considering similar rules for fire areas.

In Alaska, where a half-million acres have burned this year and the fire season came earlier than anyone can remember, insurers have already stopped offering policies to homeowners who refuse to remove fire hazards from their houses in areas where dead spruce trees are likely to burn.

But changing fire policy is slow, subject to partisan fluctuations and interest-group pressure and fraught with technical questions. "Reinstating fire is like reinstating a lost species," Dr. Pyne said. Republicans blame environmentalists, arguing that stepped-up logging is the answer, to clear the forests of the trees most likely to burn. Democrats argue that the timber industry is using fire as an excuse to cut down trees.

The Bush administration has no plans to change fire policy, said Mark E. Rey, who oversees the Forest Service. It will try to reduce the "process paralysis" that has kept land agencies from taking big new steps to clear out fuel in the forests, he said, and to encourage people in fire zones to be aware of the constant threat.

(The preceeding is excerpted from a very long article on the front page of The New York Times, Sunday, June 23, 2002.)