Environmental groups happy with Farewell fire response


Associated Press
King 5 News

WINTHROP, Wash. In his two-bedroom house nestled in the tinder-dry forests north of Republic, Tim Coleman lives under the safety of a metal roof and has made peace with wildfires.

Like many environmentalists, he is pleased with the way firefighters are letting the more than 73,000-acre Farewell Creek fire burn through the Pasayten Wilderness near the Canadian border.

Because of careful preparations, the fire is burning naturally and replenishing the forests without endangering homes or communities, Coleman said.

It's the same philosophy he used around his home, where trees and brush were cleared away to transform it from a firetrap into a less-flammable forest oasis.

Coleman and the environmental group he works with, the Kettle Range Conservation Group, think that type of prevention is still the best way to fight future wildfires.

"We need to focus our efforts on the urban/wildland interface zone where the greatest risk to lives and to firefighters exists," Coleman said.

The "let it burn" philosophy appeals to conservationists, but is often criticized by timber industry groups and those upset by images of big trees exploding into towers of flames.

Fire can help a forest to be healthy by clearing out undergrowth and dead leaves and needles, but only when the forest is ready to burn, said Stefany Bales, vice president for the Intermountain Forest Association in Idaho. When conditions are too dry or too much fuel has built up, fire will kill trees and destroy forests, she said.

It takes decades to restore a forest wiped out by flames. Few who seek out the woods for recreation are excited by the chance visit a charred landscape. And for timber companies, piles of ash can't be cut and milled into profitable lumber.

"Fire is important when it's done in a natural, therapeutic role," Bales said. "Until we can reduce the fuel load it isn't safe for most places."

The debate reaches to the highest levels of government. Congress is fighting over how much federal money to spend fighting forest fires next year. The Bush administration proposed $289 million, but the House deleted all that money before sending the bill to the Senate, where it is pending.

The Farewell Creek fire started 13 miles north of Winthrop, but the town was never in harm's way because the Forest Service conducted prescribed burns earlier in the year to eliminate fuels. That allowed firefighters to hold back the flames and steer them away from the town.

Such preventive measures should become a national policy, environmental groups believe. They prefer that to large-scale thinning of forests, which helps logging companies and requires more effort.

Environmentalists and timber groups agree that it's important to keep safe communities and homes near forests, but Bales said the backcountry must not be neglected.

"Most catastrophic fires start in the backcountry," she said, "and in these kinds of conditions, no amount of buffer is going to protect the home once a fire gets going like that."

Sue Vap, fire director for the National Park Service, said the nationwide trend in fire prevention is moving toward the protection of the border area between communities and forests where homes most often burn.

"I know we are doing a mix of projects but the emphasis on the wildland-urban interface projects has increased and will continue to do so," she said.

Fred Munson of the Northwest Ecosystem Alliance believes the government spends too much money fighting fires in forests, and too little protecting homes and preventing fires.

"You need to focus your preventative resources on protecting communities," he said.

As long as communities are kept safe, fires should be allowed to take their natural course in forests, he said.

There is no formal "let it burn" policy set by the U.S. Forest Service. That decision is made on a fire by fire basis.

But the acreage that is allowed to burn naturally has been going up since 1998, said Jackie Denk, a fire information officer for the National Interagency Fire Center in Boise, Idaho.

Throughout the 1998 fire season, 62,141 acres were allowed to burn naturally, she said. So far in 2003, 169,305 acres have burned naturally.

At Glacier National Park in Montana, the 18,000-acre Trapper Creek complex fire is burning through a scenic portion of the preserve. Fire officials there decided that because the moisture level of the trees is so low, they would aggressively fight the fire.

"In perfect conditions, if everything was wet, we have a policy that allows fire to burn under management supervision," said Christine Ayers, a park ranger.

In deciding to let a fire burn, forest officials look at factors including whether the fire was naturally caused, how dry the fuels are and what structures or people are in danger, Ayers said.

Because trees are so dry, officials are afraid the Glacier Park fire could get out of control, Ayers said. They are actively fighting its advance.

Even when a fire is allowed to burn, it's still watched and managed.

At the Farewell Creek fire, crews have wrapped some structures in fire retardant material. They have also built fire lines outside the borders of the wilderness area to keep the flames from escaping.

But in general the fire will help the forest by burning off old, diseased and dying trees that have reached the end of their life span, fire officials said.

The Farewell blaze was moving closer to the Canadian border, and officials said it would inevitably cross the boundary.

The fire will receive the same treatment in Canada as it got in Washington: Crews will make a circle around it, wait and ensure it doesn't burn any structures.

Part of the reason is money. The Farewell Creek fire has cost nearly $27 million so far.

"The amount of money that the United States has spent on the Farewell fire alone is the same amount of money British Columbia has had to fight all of its fires this year," said Judy Beck, a fire behavior specialist with the British Columbia Ministry of Forests.


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