Forest Fire—Friend or Foe?
In the United States 2.25 million acres are burned annually by wildfires. But 2.5 million acres are deliberately burned annually by the Forestry Service. They have six reasons for doing it.
WHEN I first saw the fire it was five miles (8 kilometers) up the canyon. It was small and a long way off. Fires occurred frequently during the dry season in the mountains of southern California. So I watched it for a moment, then left to put out the nightly supper for the five or six raccoons that expected it, and the grain for the 60 to 90 quail that would be up early in the morning for breakfast. I didn’t give the fire a second thought.
I checked on it the next morning. It had spread. A wind was blowing. I heard sirens as a couple of truckloads of men sped up the canyon road to fight the fire. If necessary, a couple of planes would be dispatched to drop fire-suppressant chemicals on it. I spent a couple of hours watering the flower beds and slopes of ice plant that were just starting their fall blooming. In a few days I would have to deep water the hundred pine trees that I had planted during the 10 years that my wife and I had lived on the top of this hill overlooking the Big Tujunga canyon. Some of them down on the lane were now 40 feet (12 meters) high. But right now I had to go to prepare a site where I was to pour concrete tomorrow.
That evening my wife and I stood on one of the decks that projected out over the hillside. We watched the fire. It was much bigger now, whipped along by the wind, and was both beautiful and frightening. It was three miles (5 kilometers) away, and now I did give it a second thought. Still, it was high up on the ridge on the other side of the road from us, in the national forest, and no homes were threatened. And an army of men were fighting it. Anyway, I had cleared the brush back 100 feet (30 meters) from our house. We went to bed and quickly fell asleep.
During the night I was awakened by the slamming back and forth of the sliding screen door. Slammer, the raccoon, did this when the food bowl was empty. I went outside, got the bowl and went to the storeroom to refill it with dry dog food, and returned it to its place—Slammer trotting alongside me all the time. Two other raccoons had arrived. As they ate, I looked up at the flaming ridge. It was no longer an ordinary wind that was blowing, but a hot Santa Ana out of the northeast that was of gale force. It fed the fire with an excess of oxygen, whipped the flames forward at increased speed and preheated the fuel in the fire’s pathway.
Early the next morning I refilled one of the hummingbird feeders and held a finger over one of the perches. Soon a hummer sat on my finger and sipped sugar water. The fire was only two miles (3 kilometers) away, driven on by the Santa Ana that tore through the pines around our house. I went to work—very apprehensive. Many animals would flee out of the fire’s path, but in that rough terrain that was now an inferno hundreds of others were being burned alive—all because some campers five miles (8 kilometers) up the canyon had been careless with their campfire. Ninety percent of all wildfires are caused by man—burning matches; cigarettes; leaving campfires not completely extinguished; and fires deliberately set by incendiaries.
For three days this fire on the eastern ridge of the canyon had been burning out of control. When I got home in the afternoon, it had jumped the canyon floor, and the western ridge was aflame. Our home, on top of a small ridge in the canyon, now had fire on both sides. All the next day I watched as hundreds of men fought the flames. Helicopters landed men on firebreaks. Planes circled overhead, some mapping the fire’s spread and directing operations of ground crews. Others were from television stations that were filming for their evening newscasts. Several helicopters and air tankers were dropping water and chemical suppressants on the flames—dangerous work made doubly so by the gale-force winds.
Forced to Evacuate
The next day the fire fighters subdued the fire on the western ridge; but on the eastern ridge the flames raged unchecked. On the fifth night of the fire, we watched from one of our decks as the wind blew burning embers down the mountainside and new fires would break out a half mile below the main body of fire up on the ridge. These new outbreaks were perilously close to a tract with 200 homes. Some 20 fire engines set up battle lines around these houses. We went to bed, but I soon got up to keep watch. The fire was less than a mile away, and the burning embers were being blown in our direction. By 2 a.m. the fire had burned all around the tract of houses, had jumped the road, and was racing toward our hill.
I got my wife up, collected a few clothes, and we left—she in our car with our dog and I in my truck. The flames were up to the only road out and the heat was like that of a blast furnace as the firemen directed us out. Leaving my wife and our dog with a friend’s family, the friend and I returned. The road in was impassable. We hiked in a back way. When we reached the top of the ridge, I could see the other end of it, where our house was. Great torches of fire flamed upward—the pine trees were burning. By the time we forced our way through the chaparral and got up the driveway, most of the fire was out. Two cords of firewood were burning. A helicopter flew over and dropped 150 gallons (about 570 liters) of water on it. A fire truck was preparing to leave. I thanked the firemen for saving the house. “Don’t thank us,” one replied. “The rock roof saved your house.”
The flower beds, the ground cover, the rock garden with its waterfall—everywhere I looked there was blackened ruin. Black sticks rose skyward 20, 30 and 40 feet (6, 9 and 12 meters)—many being pine trees that I had nursed from three-foot (.9-meter) shoots. Even in the midst of the desolation, however, I felt grateful that the house was undamaged. With a chain saw I cut down over 50 charred trees, and then planted 100 more. New flower beds were made. Shrubs were planted. Two decks that were half burned up were repaired. The waterfall was restored; the house was painted. We survived. Life went on.
What about the wildlife? A week after the fire we were awakened by the screen door banging back and forth. Slammer was back! It was 3 a.m., but I was delighted! The raccoons, the quail, the hummers, the mice and pack rats, even the coyotes—all returned for their handouts—but not as many as before the fire. Not all had escaped the flames.
Friendly Forest Fires
A week after the fire a newspaper carried an article stating that the fire did a lot of good. The writer’s home was not involved, of course. I was not emotionally ready to be objective, but a few months later I did send to the Forest Service for a book published by the government. It is entitled “Forest Interpreter’s Primer on Fire Management.” Among other things, it presented the following facts:
More acreage in the United States is deliberately burned by government agencies than the acreage lost to wildfires. In 1970 wildfires burned 2.25 million acres, but 2.5 million acres (1 million hectares) were burned by what is called prescribed fire. There are several reasons for using prescribed fire, but six were highlighted in this publication of the Forest Service.
One is the use of fire to fight fire—more accurately, perhaps, using fire to prevent it. When forested areas are protected from fire, the underbrush builds up, or, in logging areas, slashings accumulate. Then if a wildfire starts, from lightning or other causes, the fuel buildup on the ground feeds the flames and leads to crown fires in the treetops, and a major disaster may occur. However, if prescribed fire is used at intervals, this dangerous fuel buildup never occurs and any fire that accidentally starts never becomes so serious.
Secondly, many commercially important softwoods need full sunlight for their seedlings to thrive. Also, the seeds need to be on mineral soil to germinate. Controlled burning of accumulated litter on the forest floor—grasses, needles, small shrubs—prepares the soil for seeding and also reduces serious fire hazard. The prescribed fire also helps reproduction of some types of pine and spruce that have serotinous cones requiring heat to open them up and free their seeds.
A third reason for prescribed burns is the control of insects and disease. In pine forests light surface fires will kill needles on seedlings infected by fungus, but will not injure the terminal buds. Oak trees can be saved from heartrot fungus diseases. The pine engraver bark beetles that hibernate in forest litter are killed by properly used fire. Where pines are grown as commercial crops, prescribed fire will clear out small hardwood saplings and thereby eliminate their competing with the pines for light and nutrients. The thin bark of hardwoods makes them susceptible to damage from fire, whereas the bark of pines is thick and heat resistant.
Another reason for controlled burning is the revitalizing of berry-producing shrubs, especially blueberries. In Maine this is regularly practiced. It rids the bush of old wood and causes vigorous new sprouts to shoot forth. Shading is reduced, providing needed light for the berry plants. These burns are recommended for every fourth spring for blueberry wildlands. Not only does man benefit by the increased berry production, but wildlife food supplies also are thereby increased.
In fact, the improvement of the habitat for wildlife is the fifth reason given for prescribed burning. It increases the yield and quality of grasses, herbs, legumes and browse, providing food for grazing and browsing wildlife, and also for cattle, sheep and goats that ranchers may run on government land. In various ways and in some situations these burnings also are beneficial for different species of birds. Annually, for wildlife purposes, the Forest Service prescribes burns for about 55,000 acres (22,250 hectares) of forest land.
The sixth reason given for prescribed burns is to increase the beauty and recreational value of parklands. The burns encourage the growth of herbs and wild flowers, and open up the forest floor for easy travel by visitors by removing thick underbrush. One of the most impressive trees is the giant sequoia, and about it and fire we read:
“The Giant Sequoias of California, until the recent employment of fire management, were being threatened with destruction from wildfires because of the huge buildup of forest fuels resulting from fire protection. Through thousands of years, light surface fires had always maintained these magnificent forests but fire exclusion was permitting other highly flammable species to invade the area. Presently, with the use of prescribed fire, progress is being made in reducing the fire hazard and the Sequoias are commencing to reproduce more abundantly on the exposed mineral soil.”—Forest Interpreter’s Primer on Fire Management, pp. 46, 47.
Forest fire—friend or foe? It can be either one. Under control, it can be very friendly. Out of control, like the one that ravished our pines and flowers and decks, and cut down the number of wildlife visitors that delighted us during our years on the hilltop, forest fire is a foe. This particular one removed the watersheds on the mountains. When the rains came, the mineral-rich topsoil eroded away and mud slides came down the hills, in many cases heavily damaging homes. Some forest fires are friendly, but not this one—not to me.—Contributed.