Fires rip through West's wildlands

By Carrie Peyton Dahlberg and Matt Weiser – Sacramento Bee Staff Writers
July 10, 2007

Fires roared across the West on Monday, scorching California pines and Utah sagebrush in a devastating reminder of how quickly flames can overrun the wildlands so many people call home.

Yet with more than 40 major blazes dotting the West, and national fire response ratcheted up to its second-highest level, the fires provided another sobering reminder: So far, this is an average year in number of acres burned.

And the threat of fires that routinely consume millions of acres adds urgency to calls for re-evaluating what should be allowed to burn and what should not.

"We need to get fire back into the ecosystem as a natural process, so we don't keep having unmanageable fires," said Gary Thompson, fuels program coordinator for the U.S. Forest Service's Pacific Southwest Region.

Over the weekend, thousands of small, lightning-sparked fires erupted. Larger blazes delayed trains throughout the West and closed portions of Interstate 80 and Highway 395.

On Monday, crews fought for control of three major fires in California, including the Antelope Complex fire that had burned at least 21,500 acres of forest surrounding Antelope Lake in Plumas County.

The fire was only 21 percent contained by Monday evening. Strong winds and heat kept it moving rapidly through dense forest on rugged terrain.

"We are concerned about the wind kicking up, with thunderstorm and lightning activity predicted," said Plumas National Forest spokeswoman Sabrina Stadler.

Campgrounds and rural homes around Antelope Lake were evacuated. A public meeting was scheduled Monday night in Janesville, north of the fire, to prepare for evacuation if needed. So far, no injuries have been reported and no structures lost.

The Antelope blaze and two other large California fires come on the heels of a Lake Tahoe fire that destroyed 250 homes and sent thousands fleeing.

For a culture used to hearing about wildland fires in terms of homes, acres and lives lost, it can be difficult to remember that fires are also a revitalizing force, said Bob Mutch, a retired specialist from the Forest Service's Missoula Fire Sciences Lab.

Yet awareness is growing that fires both benefit ecosystems and ultimately lessen the burden on firefighters.

Beneficiaries include "that giant sequoia tree, or that shrub that's there because of periodic fire, or that elk that's living on shrubs or grasses that grow after a fire," Mutch said.

In addition, after monitoring one pilot area for more than 30 years, it's clear that a crazy quilt of smaller fires created what amounted to natural firebreaks that kept larger ones at bay.

"This is the most fascinating outcome," said Mutch, who was involved in some of the earliest efforts to let certain lightning fires burn unabated. "The more we allow fires to burn, the more fires become self-regulating in the wilderness."

The realization spawned an entire program of what the Forest Service calls wildland fire use, areas designated in advance where certain fires, under certain conditions, are expected to do more good than harm.

Today, about 15 percent of the 20 million acres the Forest Service oversees in California have been placed into this special category, although individual fires are evaluated case by case.

By and large, said the Forest Service's Thompson, those lands have tended to fall in areas with large amounts of wilderness acreage.

Today, he said, the divide between areas that might be allowed to burn and areas where fires are routinely suppressed is beginning to blur.

"Times are changing," said Thompson. "We're starting to drift toward a policy that would allow us to let the fire burn where it would make good sense."

Fire researchers have developed a sense of how frequently different landscapes can expect to be swept by fires, from as often as every two or three years for grasslands to as rarely as every 200 or 250 years for some high-elevation forests.

A good fire management program, said Mutch, would replicate nature's frequency -- except where human settlement makes that impossible.

With people continuing to surge into areas full of scenic but flammable foliage, firefighters have to weigh the dangers.

In the Inyo Complex fire in the eastern Sierra near John Muir Wilderness, which had burned 37,400 acres of sagebrush and small trees by Monday afternoon, choices were clear.

At least two lighting-sparked fires were allowed to burn themselves out over the weekend, said Inyo National Forest spokeswoman Nancy Upham.

Three others, which grew into what's now California's biggest wildfire, were attacked because of threats to rural structures amid high winds, record heat and dry conditions, Upham said.

About 1,200 people were fighting the Inyo blaze, which was 55 percent contained. Full containment was expected Wednesday, though more lightning and wind could delay that.

Farther north, the Plumas National Forest is laced with pockets of populated, private land that make it impractical to designate some areas where fires could burn themselves out, said forest supervisor Chris Knopp.

"Our policy around here is pretty much immediate suppression," Knopp said, although that could change if more of the forest could be properly thinned.

Only about 10 percent of the Plumas forest's 1.2 million acres have had enough thinning to safely allow low-intensity fires to burn unabated, he said.

Meanwhile, firefighters were uneasily watching California's third big blaze, which had consumed 8,200 acres of heavy brush in the Los Padres National Forest in Santa Barbara County.

The human-caused fire grew dramatically after moving into steep terrain where firefighting was difficult.

"It's burning in areas that haven't even burned in recorded history," said Santa Barbara County Fire Capt. Eli Iskow. "The fuels are at historic lows in moisture, and now it's burning uphill. It's a formula that makes it very difficult to put out."

Low moisture was a refrain throughout the drought-plagued West, even as fire officials so far hold to a "normal" label for this fire season.

"We're basically very lucky that we're holding our own," said Rose Davis, spokeswoman for the National Interagency Fire Center in Boise, Idaho.

So far this year, fires have blackened about 2.5 million acres, just above the 10-year average to date of 2.1 million. By this time last year, fire had already devastated 4 million acres.

This year, Davis said, "The drought has clearly been very, very scary for us."

With the worst two months of the fire year barely begun, the interagency center has set its "preparedness level" at 4 on a scale of 5. At 5, things are considered bad enough to recruit firefighters from Canada, Australia and New Zealand.

Among the major fires rampaging through 11 Western states are Utah's largest blaze on record, topping 460 square miles and blamed for three deaths, including a California couple on a motorcycle that crashed in smoke-impaired visibility.

In Nevada, fires covered 245 square miles, and other fires roiled through Alaska, Arizona, Idaho, Montana, Oregon, South Dakota, Washington and Wyoming.


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