Through my Burning Eyes -- Mismanaged Forests and our National Fire Crisis

Fire may be an integral part of civilization, but I learned to hate it as a child.

I was born into a family of California firefighters. My grandfather and father became city firemen after working for the Forest Service. My father died fighting a fire in a chemical plant.

I discovered I couldn't carry on the family tradition when I developed a severe smoke allergy. I came to the Sierras 15 years ago for the pure, pine-scented air. But for much of the last 10 years I've been choking and rubbing itchy eyes every summer.

The growing stress and physical distress have brought me to see one thing clearly: Our Western forests have been mismanaged for 100 years, and as a result we have entered an unprecedented era of fire danger. I believe it's an unacknowledged national crisis.

Forest managers know that fire is an important tool that nature uses to get rid of disease and thin out underbrush and dead trees. But that process only works under nature's regime. The Forest Service changed the rules by following a century-long policy of zero-tolerance fire suppression, allowing our forests to become overgrown with brush and densely packed trees.

Now we can't let nature take its course and simply let fire rampage through our forests. Now, when fires start -- whether due to lightning, careless campers or even arson -- they have too much fuel and burn catastrophically hot.

 From here I browse the Internet and read the papers that come from the cities: In the interior West, say the stories, the wildfires of 2000 burned more than 8 million acres. In a 2001 study, the General Accounting Office identified 40 million acres of national forest at risk of catastrophic fire in the West.

To fathom 8 million acres, think of an area larger than Yellowstone, Yosemite, Sequoia and the Grand Canyon national parks combined. Forty million acres is exactly half the total acreage of our entire national park system, and about one-fifth of our national forest system. Picture an area that large charred and devoid of life, and you have a sense of the magnitude of the problem.

2001 was an average fire season that saw 3.5 million acres burned in 84,000 separate fires that consumed 731 structures. The cost to fight these fires totaled $542 million. Timber, wildlife and other natural resources were damaged or destroyed.

The 2002 fire season has already eclipsed the total number of acres burned last year, and what has traditionally been the worst part of the season is just beginning. In July and early August, firefighting crews have battled blazes in nearly every Western state. Three firefighting airplanes have crashed this summer, killing their crews. Firefighting resources have been stretched thin. What if there were even more fires?

Fire suppression once seemed like such a good idea. I can remember the smiling face of Smokey the Bear -- firefighting's smart and kindly ambassador. It seemed wise to put out all fires. However, we now know the truth. George Wuerthner, a widely published author on environmental and natural history topics, puts it bluntly in "The Legacy of Smokey the Bear":

"No single human modification of the environment has had more pervasive and widespread negative consequence for the ecological integrity of North America than fire suppression..."

This spring I drove from southeast Arizona past the fires in the northern part of the state, and then by fires raging in New Mexico and Colorado. Day after day the landscape rolled by: three states covered in blankets of smoke and haze. This is the future.

Mismanagement and inaction have put us in this box. But politicians would rather use scapegoats to score points with voters than find real solutions. As fires in her state raged, Arizona's Republican governor pinned the blame on environmentalists. But enviros have not been in charge of our forests this past century.

The Forest Service uses our tax dollars mostly to identify areas to be logged, mark trees and build logging roads. Last year, the Agriculture Department's inspector general discovered that Forest Service managers had diverted millions in forest restoration funding, meant to help reduce fire risk, to start up the process of timber sales -- road building and marking trees to be cut -- in forests across the country.

It is time to insist that the Forest Service implement a sound management plan that focuses on the health of the forest and on fire prevention, not suppression. Our Western forests need to be cleared of undergrowth and they need to be thinned out. That can be done in an ecologically sound manner; "thinning" must not become the guise for more environmentally destructive logging.

Let's not allow the Forest Service to use the crisis simply to serve the timber industry. This is no time for business as usual. These are our national forests.

Will Hart is a Lake Tahoe, Calif., based freelance writer, photographer, and filmmaker.

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