Heat, wind, and no rain just part of a troubling Western recipe for explosive fires

Published: Saturday, June 30 2012 3:06 p.m. MDT

Even with access, treatment is expensive and has to be handled individually, tree by tree, because the chemicals have to cover the entire trunk and reach upward 40 to 50 feet.

"We can protect individual trees with pesticides; we cannot protect forests."

In a 150,000-acre area on the Wasatch Plateau east of Manti, Munson said visitors will find a lone spruce tree. It is the only one that was treated by pesticide.

Fire suppression backfires

Forest fire ecologists like Mike Jenkins and others like Munson believe a century-long tradition of putting out forest fires has boomeranged to man's own detriment — and to the peril of forests' health.

"Wildfires are a common feature of Western forests; they have happened for tens of thousands of years, long before we were here," said Jenkins, a professor of forest fire ecology at Logan's Utah State University. "My personal opinion is the more fires the better. But we've grown up under a fire-suppression regime."

Fires promote new growth, clear dead, diseased and dying trees with some species of pine trees, produce the heat necessary for pine cones to release seeds to foster new saplings.

Fires also clear away invasive grasses and the undergrowth in forests — the shrubs, smaller trees and grasses that if left unchecked year after year turn into an overgrowth of fuel to create even bigger fires.

Jenkins said he finds it ironic and sad that so few tax dollars are spent on aggressive clearing of such vegetation.

"There's unlimited dollars and resources available for fire suppression. The response is heroic. There is nothing that is not available. But there is nothing like that available in advance of the ignition," he said.

Jenkins said letting fires burn has become increasingly problematic for two very obvious reasons: urban encroachment and air pollution considerations.

"People are building their homes in the wildlands, not creating a defensible space around their property but are expecting a level of protection from the government or some higher power which sometimes isn't going to happen," Jenkins said.

As more and more people take to the mountains for recreation or to live, the more fires that will happen, Jenkins said, stressing there are only two causes of wildfires: man and lightning.

While it is paramount to protect life and property, he said even letting a favorite, abandoned camp site succumb to flames is unpopular. Man is in love with the forests.

"It's very difficult," he said. "People become attached to it and they view it as that is the way it has always been and will always be. To understand that there will be change in that place in their lifetime, but it will return to something similar in 200 to 300 years, is not very comforting."

The 1988 wildfires that ravaged more than a third of Yellowstone National Park are an example of how publicly distressing it was to watch an iconic treasure burn.

"There's been a strong public mandate for fire suppression," Jenkins said, "and as a result, agencies have gotten really good at it."

A ravaged West

This week, the National Interagency Fire Center ramped up its wildfire preparedness level to an alert stage only declared two other times in the past 20 years.

In Colorado, an Army battalion is being trained to be ground firefighters and the nation's four remaining specialized Defense Department C-130s were activated. The worst fire in Colorado's history claimed two people and others remained missing Saturday.

In Utah, a body found near a cabin claimed in the Wood Hollow fire last week may be yet another human fatality attributed to wildfires. And two aerial firefighters were killed June 4 when their air tanker crashed into rugged terrain near the Utah-Nevada border.

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