NOVA: Fire Wars
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Most of you know that I live in Sedona, Arizona. Sedona is about 100 miles
from the Rodeo-Chediski fire, which is currently the largest wildfire in the
United States. To date, the fire has consumed 455,000 acres of forest land,
burned 423 homes and buildings, and resulted in some 32,000 people being
evacuated from nine different communities.
Severe drought conditions throughout the state of Arizona (and most of the
Southwest), have created a near-perfect atmosphere for wildfires. Because of
this, virtually all the parks, trails, campsites, even roadside pullouts
around Sedona are closed. This is the first time this has happened in the 15
plus years I have lived in Sedona. And smoke from the Rodeo-Chediski fire,
90 percent of which continues to burn out of control, makes it clear that a
fire breaking out in Sedona (or elsewhere in Arizona) is not some vague,
Over the last few days, local television and radio stations have been
understandably preoccupied with Rodeo-Chediski fire -- how many acres of
land have been burned, how many homes lost, how many people evacuated, and,
increasingly, who's to blame (so far, overzealous environmentalists are the
I've been watching all this and wondering what it means. And last night I
caught a NOVA special that provided some comprehensive, level-headed,
carefully-researched answers. Originally broadcast May 7, 2002, the NOVA
special mentioned, among other things, how fire is a natural and necessary
part of the eco-system (there's an important symbolic message here for our
personal lives, but that's another subject). The NOVA special also described
how recent generations of well-intentioned, albeit misguided Americans have
created a full-blown crisis by not understanding, or properly utilizing, the
power of fire. With some 40 million acres of U.S. forests now endangered by
a hundred years of mismanagement, officials are searching for ways to
correct past mistakes before future catastrophes strike.
And, surprise, the whole mess is also tied into our planet's larger global
What follows are excerpts from NOVA's timely report...
--- David Sunfellow
FIRE WARS WEBSITE:
FIRE WARS TRANSCRIPT:
NARRATOR: Nature's ignition, lightning, strikes the earth up to eight
million times a day. When it hits dry fuels -- grass, pine tar, small
branches -- the result is fire. In every part of the world, lightning sparks
regular burning. Over millions of years, plants and animals have evolved
with fire. Some even take advantage of it as a creative, life-giving force.
STEVE PYNE: The fact that it's been there, the fact that it has been a part
of their environment the same way that certain patterns of rainfall or
sunshine occur, means that they have adjusted their life cycles, their
existence, to this rhythm of fire.
NORMAN L. CHRISTENSEN (Duke University): There are many species that don't
just withstand the fire but, in fact, depend on it. Many species of pine,
for example: the cones remain closed until a fire burns through the area.
The heat of the fire actually melts waxes and causes the cones to expand and
release the seeds.
NARRATOR: Different species use fire in different ways. California chaparral
burns to the ground every few decades, then grows back up from the roots.
Lodgepole pine burns more rarely. Every one to three hundred years, crown
fires level the lodgepole forest and produce a whole new crop of seedlings.
The trees themselves record the history of how forests burn. Embedded in
their growth rings are fire scars, charred lines left behind every time the
tree is scorched.
CRAIG D. ALLEN (U.S. Geological Survey): These tree cross-sections show that
for hundreds of years fires frequently burned through ponderosa pine
forests. This is true throughout ponderosa pine forests in the West. Each of
the black arrows represents a fire scar recorded in the tree, and you can
see these events between 1796, 1814, 1822, 1847, 1851, 1861, 1874, 1879 and
1899. They were landscape-wide. They would spread across very large portions
of landscape. Some years the whole Southwest was burning, we know from these
fire scar records.
NARRATOR: These were not crown fires but low-intensity burns. They thinned
out the smaller ponderosas, leaving nutrients and space for others to grow
big and tall. Fire created open, park-like forests quite unlike the ones
we're used to today.
CRAIG D. ALLEN: This is a good example of the kind of Ponderosa pine forest
that used to be widespread in the western U.S. These open-grown, big trees,
300-year-old trees, 40 or so trees per acre with grassy understories. That
was maintained this way by repeated surface fires.
NARRATOR: Throughout eons of history, the fires that shaped the earth's
landscapes were sparked by lightning. Then, about one million years ago,
another fire starter appeared.
STEVE PYNE: Only one creature that we know of acquired the ability, actually
a species monopoly, to manipulate fire. We have fingers and hands and all
the apparatus we need to pick it up, to start it, to stop it, to rearrange
it, to move it around the planet. We came, if you will, genetically equipped
to manipulate fire. But we don't come genetically programmed knowing how to
use it. What should we do with this power?
NARRATOR: In North America, as in many parts of the world, indigenous
peoples made fire their partner. Native Americans burned deliberately, using
fire as a tool for hunting, clearing land for crops and molding the
environment to their needs.
NORMAN L. CHRISTENSEN: They used it to keep the forest open to provide
routes for travel, they used it to improve wildlife habitat. And that was
happening all over North America, in the Plains, in the eastern states, in
the Far West.
NARRATOR: When Europeans arrived here, many landscapes they thought of as
natural were in fact the result of thousands of years of Native American
burning. Early settlers learned from the Native Americans, but as Europeans
moved across the continent and settled the West, the Native American
approach to fire became controversial.
STEVE PYNE: The people who were actually on the ground, the frontiersmen,
those in close contact with American Indians, always saw them burning and
understood why they were doing it and saw the power of that. But again, the
people in cities -- academics, officials -- saw it differently.
NARRATOR: In 1899, after studying wildfire in the West for three years, a
U.S. Geological Survey report said that fire's effects were "always evil,
without a single redeeming feature." But hardly anyone was ready to declare
war on fire -- until the summer of 1910.
That spring, little rain fell. By summer the Northern Rockies were tinder
dry. Locomotives scattered sparks along tracks, starting fires that spread
into the forest. Summer thunderstorms brought lightning. The fires began to
multiply. Then, on August 20th, the weather made a sudden change.
STEVE PYNE: A cold front moves through. The wind picks up on the 20th
steadily throughout the day, reaching essentially gale force speeds by late
afternoon, and the fires have just erupted.
NARRATOR: Smaller fires merged into huge firestorms. Giant trees were
uprooted and thrown around like straws. Settlers fled for their lives,
crossing streams so hot the fish were dying.
JOHN N. MACLEAN: It was unbelievable how catastrophic it was. I mean it
just... the whole country was on fire.
NARRATOR: ...To this day, the Big Blowup of 1910 remains the worst wildland
firefighter disaster in American history: 78 dead, many more injured. For
weeks, search parties combed the woods, finding survivors and bodies. The
devastation was massive. Entire towns were destroyed. Three million acres
burned in the Northern Rockies alone, 20 million across the entire West. In
Boston, smoke turned the sun an eerie copper color. Soot fell on the ice in
JOHN N. MACLEAN: It was a catastrophic event, not only for that region, but
for the whole attitude of the United States toward fire.
NARRATOR: The Big Blowup stunned the country. It was the turning point that
led to the creation of a national fire policy. From now on all fires would
be put out, a goal that would be called 100 percent suppression. An all-out
war on fire had begun.
STEVE PYNE: The next three chiefs of the Forest Service, all the way through
1939, were personally on the fire lines in 1910. They are going to remember
those fires, and they are going to continue to try to re-fight it, and this
time they're convinced they're going to win.
NARRATOR: To win this war on fire, an army was created. Technology -- air
power and radios -- revolutionized fire detection. Thousands of young men
flooded the backcountry, working for the Civilian Conservation Corps during
the Depression. They cleared trails, built lookouts and fire roads.
Organized crews trained to fight fires together, the predecessors of today's
Hotshots. For the first time, Americans were taking on fire, confident they
WILLIAM TWEED (Sequoia National Park): In the early days a lot of things
were done in national parks that would certainly not be done today. Here in
the Giant Forest of Sequoia National Park we cut ramps on top of trees so
people could drive their cars on top of them and get a picture. We built
campgrounds in the sequoia groves. We liked deer, so we shot mountain lions
-- something we'd never do today. But the most fundamental thing we did in
this forest was we suppressed fire. We liked green. We liked cool. We liked
pretty. Fire was ugly. Fire was perceived as dangerous. So we began a policy
of total fire suppression in our sequoia groves. We got better and better at
putting out fires.
NARRATOR: By the early 1960s there had been no big fires in the groves for
decades. Then Park managers realized they had a problem: there were many new
trees but no new sequoias.
WILLIAM TWEED: It happened so slowly, it had almost been missed. And when we
looked at the pictures one century to the next, it suddenly stood out like a
sore thumb. We'd done something drastic to our forest. The Big Trees were
still there and they kept growing. But the new generation was missing. And
what was there instead was a new generation of thick pine and fir and cedar,
filling in the forest, shading it and precluding the sun-loving sequoias
from ever having a chance to sprout and grow.
Once we realized that we had changed our forest by removing fire, the
question came to us, "How do we put fire back in?" I mean, our first
attempts at managing this enemy were done with enormous caution. We went
into our experimental forest in the 1960s. We'd take an acre or two. We'd
cut a fireline around it, bring in fire trucks, almost surround it by
firemen, and very cautiously and very hesitantly light a little corner and
see what would happen.
NARRATOR: The fires burned away years of litter covering the forest floor,
exposing the bare mineral soil that sequoia seeds need for germination.
Sequoias also need light, and the flames thinned out the thick overgrowth,
letting sunshine once again wash over the exposed soil. The next year, for
the first time in decades, there were baby sequoias.
WILLIAM TWEED: So a whole bunch of very fundamental things here are
fire-driven, and all of those processes had been lost during the century of
NARRATOR: Setting controlled fires in the sequoia groves, prescribed
burning, seemed full of promise.
STEVE PYNE: Well, prescribed burning appears in the 1960s and it seems
almost revolutionary. But in fact it's simply going back to the way it had
always been. Fire setting and fire suppressing had gone together, fire
lighting and fire fighting. They had always been complimentary things.
NARRATOR: The Park Service began regular burns in the sequoia groves and the
Big Trees were revitalized. But around the country foresters were still not
convinced. They had been trained, all of them, in suppression, and
prescribed burning went against everything they had learned. Even in Sequoia
there was resistance. Visitors saw scarred and blackened trees, and many of
them felt sure prescribed fires were ruining the forest.
JOHN F. ELLIOTT (Sequoia Area Newspaper Publisher): When I come to Giant
Forest I don't want to see a scene of desolation like this. Now I'm being
told that 100 years from now this will be in better shape and will be a
renewed area and will be fine. But in the meantime we have several
generations that have to come and deal with this death and destruction. I
don't think it's worth the cost.
WILLIAM TWEED: People expect natural landscapes to be enduring and
unchanging, and that's almost never true. Sooner or later this is all going
to burn. It's either going to burn during an event that we try to control or
it's going to burn on its own terms, on the hottest, driest, windiest day,
in a far more destructive cycle. It's important that people realize that the
choice is not between prescribed fire and no fire, the choice ultimately is
between prescribed fire and wildfire.
NARRATOR: Over the next two decades, the lessons of Sequoia slowly took
hold. Firefighters abandoned the goal of 100 percent suppression and in some
places began to set prescribed fires. They let some wildfires burn until
they died out on their own, a new policy called "prescribed natural fire" or
"let burn." But in another of America's most beloved national parks the "let
burn" approach would be put to a terrible test.
Yellowstone Park: the summer of 1988 was the driest on record, and by early
July a half-dozen fires were burning. At first they were allowed to burn
naturally. But within weeks, over 8,000 acres were charred and park
officials began to worry. The "let burn" policy was suspended.
It was too late. Major fires, christened with ominous names like
"Hellroaring" and "Storm Creek," started outside the park and moved in. High
winds drove embers as far as a mile and a half, starting new fires. Flames
threatened the historic lodges and even the ground under Old Faithful. The
fires defied all efforts at control, joining together into huge flaming
fronts. Thousands of firefighters were deployed, two battalions of Marines.
And millions of dollars were spent in essentially useless efforts to control
the fires. Only the snows of late October finally ended the danger -- after
1.4 million acres burned in and around the park.
BRUCE BABBITT: The politicians immediately blamed everybody in sight, and
the superintendent up at Yellowstone, to his great eternal credit, said,
"Folks, relax. This is a natural event." And lo and behold, two, three, four
years later he was proven right. All of a sudden, the slopes are greening
with new lodgepole pines. The lupin and the summer flowers are blooming, and
the place is just sort of miraculously coming back.
NARRATOR: But to many the destruction was too widespread, too long term. A
national treasure had been horribly damaged, and more conflagrations seemed
inevitable. After more than a half-century of suppression other forests
throughout the country were overgrown and primed for disaster.
WILLIAM ARMSTRONG: And so what you have got now is a carpet of dead and
dying victims of this crowding. Not only enormous quantities of fuel on the
ground, but we have an arrangement of fuels that lead to explosive fire. Now
what we're finding is when the fires burn and burn with these intensities,
what's happening is it's burning everything. And what you're ending up with
is a parking lot. It's burning it right down to this bare mineral soil and
baking it. These are the kinds of fires that kill people, that burn up
towns, entire communities, and there's absolutely nothing we can do but
stand there and watch them until the weather changes or until it runs out of
NORMAN L. CHRISTENSEN: Fire managers have a complex job. At one end of the
spectrum of fire behavior we can manage fire effectively and artfully. At
the other end of the spectrum of fuel complexity and quantity we have no
more control over fire burning in a lodgepole pine forest than we do
managing an ice storm. And there's no particular place where we can say,
"Well, these are the fires we can control, or these are the fires we can
prescribe, and these are the fires we can't." There's no threshold.
NARRATOR: What remains is a paradox: our efforts to control fire have
actually made conditions worse, setting the stage for larger, more
catastrophic wildfires than ever before.
STEVE PYNE: It's a huge mess that is out there. It's going to cost an
enormous amount of money. We can spend a billion dollars now and it doesn't
seem to make a terrific amount of difference. We've reduced our whole
relationship to fire to one thing: as a firefight. And we're trying to fight
fire as though it were a war and, uh, it's probably not going to work much
better than the war on drugs.
NARRATOR: So far, in the year 2000, fires have consumed almost three million
acres, a million more than an average season. They've burned down hundreds
of buildings and forced tens of thousands of people to evacuate. More and
more Americans are building homes near wilderness areas. Few are prepared to
share their property with fire.
NEIL SAMPSON: Most of the time those of us that move out into the
countryside don't realize we're in a fire environment because we've never
seen a fire there. Fires have been suppressed there for a very, very long
time. There's not a person out there that has a memory of a large fire. So
in everybody's mind, this is not a fire environment. It hasn't burned.
STEVE PYNE: What we've done is take sort of the two extreme values of
American environmentalism, the city and the wild. We're ramming them
together and it's sort of matter and anti-matter collision, and, uh, we
shouldn't be surprised that it's exploding.
NARRATOR: Even in an environment where wildfire is natural and inevitable,
homeowners still expect the government to protect them at almost any cost.
One way to do this is regular prescribed burning. But prescribed fires are
risky, too, as Los Alamos learned earlier this year. And there's another
downside to prescribed fire, smoke.
NEIL SAMPSON: If we use a lot of fire, we may discomfort an awful lot of
people, because the smoke and the air pollution is a real problem. So, it's
not, uh, a harmless situation. It may be natural, but it's not harmless.
NARRATOR: Time and again, communities limit prescribed burning because of
smoke, leaving themselves more vulnerable to wildfire.
NARRATOR: Whether from prescribed fire or wildfire, there will be smoke.
Here in the northern Rockies, only a few hours from Clear Creek, a dozen
other big fires are burning. A thick, choking haze lies like a blanket over
the region, so wide and dense it can be seen from space.
And smoke is more than an inconvenience for nearby residents. It's a key
factor in global warming -- how much so is one of the biggest questions in
fire science today.
Alaska, the wilderness north of Fairbanks. Sixty-five scientists from around
the world have come to this remote location for "Frostfire." Fifteen years
in the planning, it's one of the largest fire experiments ever conducted in
the United States.
DAVID V. SANDBERG (U.S.D.A. Forest Service Research): This is the boreal
forest. This is a very common feature of, of the whole northern latitudes.
This is a forest that's very much driven by the dynamics of fire.
NARRATOR: In preparation for the Frostfire experiment, sample plots have
been laid out where every twig and pile of leaf litter is measured, every
tree marked with a fire-resistant metal tag...
NARRATOR: One purpose of Frostfire is to find out how forest fires
contribute to global warming, the gradual increase in the earth's
temperature that scientists have observed. So firefighters have cut eight
miles of fireline around this entire valley and plan to burn all 2200
NARRATOR: Many scientists believe global warming is connected with the
levels of carbon gasses in the air. Carbon monoxide, carbon dioxide and
methane, the "greenhouse" gasses, are released by burning fossil fuels and
forests. All living things contain carbon, and one third of the earth's
carbon is found in these northern forests -- some in the trees, more frozen
in the "permafrost," the icy subsoil.
DAVID V. SANDBERG: Permafrost exists in this environment with an average
temperature of about one degree below freezing all year round. So it doesn't
take much in terms of either warming the soil or removing this insulating
layer of duff before that melts. And if that melts a tremendous change will
NARRATOR: If the permafrost melts, huge volumes of greenhouse gasses will be
released. This could speed global warming, causing more forest fires. More
fires would release still more gasses, fueling a dangerous spiral of climate
change and fire.
DAVID V. SANDBERG: This is the layer that really counts. It's where the
carbon is. It's where the insulation for the permafrost layer is. So we want
a good severe burn that burns down into this duff and moss layer, but one
that's controllable and manageable. We've been planning this thing for 10,
15 years. And this is the first chance that we've really seen a condition
when we should really get the kind of burn that'll, that'll tell us
NARRATOR: Burn day: the scientists and the firefighters are ready...
NARRATOR: Dave Dash is the burn boss on Frostfire, the man who decides if
conditions are right for the experiment. He has to be sure the 100
firefighters on this burn can keep it under control, and he has to get the
right kind of fire for the scientists.
NARRATOR: The day after the burn the scientists are hard at work, measuring
the fire's severity and recording its effects...
NARRATOR: The results show that this short burn has released 10 tons of
potent greenhouse gasses. Multiply this by the thousands of wildfires that
burn every year and the answer is frightening.
NEIL SAMPSON: I estimated that in the year 2000 with the fires that were in
the 11 western states, that we may have released the equivalent of 75
million tons of carbon into the atmosphere through the carbon dioxide,
carbon monoxide and methane that was released. So this is a really, really
NARRATOR: Even worse, emissions from wildfires are only a fraction of those
released by fossil fuels. And no one really knows how much might tip the
earth into major climate change. Global warming has given new urgency to the
search for solutions to the wildfire problem.
WILLIAM ARMSTRONG: The question that we're facing is, "How do we reintroduce
fire into a veritable furnace, for heaven's sakes, with the amount of fuel
and the amount of trees and so forth that have accumulated out here over the
last hundred years?" My opinion is, as a forester and from my experience, I
don't believe that you can utilize fire as your only tool. You got to have
lots of different tools and they have to be used in a way that makes sense.
NARRATOR: Recently, Bill Armstrong tried a new approach in the ponderosa
forests near Los Alamos, thinning and burning. He cut back the small trees
and brush, hauled them away, and then did some light burning. This was an
attempt to recreate conditions that existed before fires were suppressed,
when less dense forests meant less intense fires. When the Cerro Grande fire
roared through Los Alamos, Armstrong had a chance to see if the approach
WILLIAM ARMSTRONG: What happened here was that, because the stem densities
and the fuels were reduced, when the Cerro Grande fire came over the hill
over there, rather than incinerating this area and burning through the
crowns and leaving a blackened, denuded landscape, the fire dropped to the
ground when it reached this area and behaved very similar to what it
probably historically did and burned along through the ground, through the
debris and needles on the ground. As you can see, none of these trees
suffered any dire effects. They're all still green. In fact, they're
probably better off with the fire coming through this area than if they
NARRATOR: In areas of the Southwest where thinning and burning have been
tried it's been an ecological success. But thinning makes some
environmentalists nervous. They see it as an opening for uncontrolled
logging. And burning must be done carefully to make sure fires don't escape
and to minimize smoke. It's time-consuming and labor-intensive.
JOHN N. MACLEAN: The government wants to treat 40 million acres of federal
land, uh, over the next fifteen years. They figure about half of that, 20
million acres, uh, will burn naturally. The other 20 million acres they'll
have to put time and money and energy into. This is sometimes uncomfortable
for people in the area, but that's the way they're going.
NARRATOR: Many of these 40 million acres are in remote areas, and it will
cost as much as $20 billion to treat them. But fighting wildfire is also
expensive, well over a billion dollars a year.
NEIL SAMPSON: The idea of using prescribed fire is a little bit like "pay
me now or pay me later." You're going to get some damage. You're going to
get some smoke. We can spread the smoke throughout the year. If you don't do
it, you're going to get a big fire and you're going to have the smoke all at
once, the concentrations are going to be much worse, and the damages are
going to be much worse. So it's...the problem is we're looking for a
solution that is not perfect, but it's the least damaging...
NARRATOR: Where wildfire is concerned, there are no easy answers. Every
approach has failed or created new problems. Yet there is no choice. We can
no longer fight fire like a war, but we can't walk away from it either.
STEVE PYNE: There really is no neutral position for us. Once we seized the
torch 100,000 years ago, a million years ago, whenever, once we seized that,
uh, we lost the right to walk away from it. That was the responsibility that
came with the power.
NARRATOR: Living close to America's wildlands and maintaining the landscapes
we cherish means accepting that there will be fire. It means fighting fires,
living with fires, even setting fires. It means finding a balance that so
far has been elusive.
To order this show or any other NOVA program for $19.95 plus shipping and
handling, call WGBH Boston Video, at 1-800-255-9424.
The Wildfire Family Activity book, a companion to Fire Wars, is available
free of charge. The book includes a family educational game and activities.
To order, write WGBH, EPO/Wildfire, 125 Western Avenue, Boston,
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