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Bright sparks rethink wildfire strategy

August 3, 2004 By Helen Pearson This article courtesy of Nature News.

Biologists present scheme to tame conflagrations in US forests.

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The United States needs to revise its approach to forest wildfires, a group of scientists declared on Monday. They are proposing an action plan for thwarting and controlling such fires, based on growing research.

Concern about US wildfires has increased in recent years along with the size and intensity of conflagrations. Fires in 2000 consumed around 8.4 million hectares of forest, the largest area in several decades, and record-breaking fires have swept the western United States over the past four years.

At the same time, debate is raging over the federal government's fire management policies. The Healthy Forests Restoration Act, passed by Congress in 2003, is supposed to cut the threat of wildfires while respecting the environment. But critics say it is simply a permit for logging in untouched forests. "It is grossly inadequate," says forest ecologist Jerry Franklin of the University of Washington in Seattle.

Wildlife experts presented their 'Vision for wildfire preparation' at the Society for Conservation Biology's annual meeting in New York City. The plan, which is also published in this month's Conservation Biology, outlines steps to manage forests before, during and after a blaze.

Although the issue of wildfire management has been around for decades, the scientists say that their new plan offers the most comprehensive approach for controlling wildfires, as it synthesizes the latest science into a set of recommendations for non-government organizations and policy-makers. "It is a very clear set of directions," says ecologist and contributor Chris Frissell of the Pacific Rivers Council, a conservation group in Polson, Montana.

Action plan

Experts believe that the spike in wildfires has a number of causes, including global warming, the logging of old, fire-hardy trees and the growing urban sprawl, which increases the risk of people inadvertently sparking a fire. Those at the meeting also blamed the long-standing policy of stamping out forest fires when they flare up, because it allows the survival of fire-prone trees that can exacerbate later blazes.

No one really knows how to live harmoniously with fire.
Philip Omi
Western Forest Fire Research Center
To combat these problems, the team proposes the creation of zones with different levels of risk. Prevention money and efforts would be focused first on high-risk areas where people live, and would include measures such as using fire-resistant building materials.

In neighbouring zones, the group recommends restricting animal grazing, closing roads and carefully thinning out young, flammable trees. They propose leaving back-country forest intact, either allowing fires to burn out or deliberately torching certain areas. 'Salvage logging' of burned trees should be stopped, the researchers warn, because it damages soils and the ecosystem.

Philip Omi, who directs the Western Forest Fire Research Center at Colorado State University, Fort Collins, welcomes the fact that scientists are attempting to engage more actively with policy-makers. But he is not convinced that such plans will spark any immediate solutions. "Change happens slowly," he says.

Countries such as Canada and Australia are also wrestling with the questions about how best to rein in wildfires, Omi points out: "No one has really solved the problem of how to live harmoniously with fire."

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