Tuesday, August 28, 2007

Land use policies can stoke major wildfires

Missoula Independent (Montana): …As the hottest and driest summer the state has seen in years continues without relief, fire managers across the region are reporting unprecedented fire behavior…

Across the West, forest advocates and wildfire experts are now pointing to this summer’s fire behavior as a harbinger of future fire seasons, and looking for lessons to learn as the globe continues to warm. “What’s happening is that climate change is colliding with past land-management abuses,” says Tim Ingalsbee, executive director of the Oregon-based Firefighters United for Safety, Ethics, and Ecology.

Decades of patchwork clear cutting, forest thinning and road building has left a landscape ripe for extreme fire behavior, says Ingalsbee. Increasingly extreme weather—stronger winds, lower humidity, higher temperatures—is combining with hotter, more open, dryer and windier forests, creating disastrous conditions.

…George Wuerthner, editor of the 2006 book The Wildfire Reader: A Century of Failed Forest Policy, points out that recently logged terrain does not necessarily create fire breaks: “Big logs don’t burn very readily…But after a logging operation you have a lot of branches that are one to four inches in diameter, and that kind of stuff burns really well,” Wuerthner says in an interview.

Commercial logging also opens up the forest to rapid growth of shrubs, bushes and small trees, Wuerthner says. Those fuels dry out quickly and burn readily, making them a prime ignition source for larger logs and trees.

…While many of the state’s biggest fires are burning on land that has been heavily logged, or are burning within wilderness boundaries, Montana Sen. Jon Tester recently implied that lawsuits over timber sales are partly to blame for what he termed, “the buildup of dry, ready-to-burn fuel in Montana’s forests.”…

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