Benefits of Planned Forest Fires Are Cited

By Juliet Eilperin
Washington Post Staff Writer
Sunday, July 31, 2005

THOMASVILLE, Ga. -- Firefighters have battled blazes on nearly 4 million acres of public and private land so far this year -- and federal officials are on track to deliberately burn 2.5 million more.

This is not a case of rampant arson.

Federal and state officials, joined by some environmentalists and academics, increasingly advocate deliberately setting fires in wild areas to restore ecosystems and prevent wildfires from raging out of control. Fires are part of the natural life cycle of forests, they argue, and help maintain a broader diversity of habitats for wildlife. After decades of fire suppression and Smokey Bear, the government now embraces "prescribed fire" as a key tool in managing the nation's forests.

The policy began under President Bill Clinton and has accelerated under President Bush, but as it has grown, so has the controversy it inspires. Some community activists complain that prescribed fires pollute the air and damage valuable hardwoods, and logging companies say the strategy deprives them of valuable timber. Sen. Conrad Burns (R-Mont.) is calling on the Forest Service to reexamine the impact on logging, and environmentalists are divided on the issue.

"We've lost the consensus, there's no question about that," said former interior secretary Bruce Babbitt, who helped put out forest fires as a high school student and pushed for prescribed burning under the Clinton administration.

The Forest Service -- which celebrates its 100th anniversary this month -- started quashing fires five years after its inception, after wildfires burned more than 3 million acres in two days in Idaho and Montana and killed nearly 100 people. In 1935, the Service adopted a national "10 a.m." policy, demanding its firefighters contain every fire by 10 a.m. the day after they learned of it. Smokey Bear debuted nine years later, telling Americans, "Only you can prevent forest fires."

But by the mid-1990s, the federal government had begun to rethink that policy. Five years ago, it adopted a national fire plan that called for treating 40 million acres of brush and dense forest by 2010 through logging and burning.

Forest managers prefer prescribed burns to "mechanical thinning" for several reasons. Prescribed burns are much cheaper than thinning, costing $13 to $28 an acre, by some estimates. Foresters light them by hand or set them from a helicopter by injecting a few drops of antifreeze into small plastic spheres containing potassium permanganate powder, which ignites several seconds after the balls hit the ground.

Officials now aim to return forests back to a cycle in which fires routinely sweep through, said Marc Rounsaville, the Forest Service's deputy director for fire and aviation.

"Just like rain, like snow, it's part of the natural system," Rounsaville said. "It's probably the number one management tool in the South, and we're working hard in the rest of the country to put it into place. . . . Do we get it right every day? No, I won't lie to you. But we're getting better at it, we're getting smarter at it."

Although the number of federally prescribed burns has more than doubled since fiscal 2000, many advocates say it is still not enough. Kevin Hiers, who manages fire use in Georgia and Alabama for the Nature Conservancy, a national environmental organization, said the group has burned 11,000 acres in Georgia this year -- twice as many as last year -- and he would like to double that again next year.

"We're on an exponential rise," said Hiers, whose group works with Georgia's Department of Natural Resources. After a forest fire, he said, "the biodiversity is absolutely astonishing. Something clicks, and you understand how an ecosystem interacts with burning in a fundamental way."

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