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Publication date: Aug. 2, 2000

WILDFIRES: A BACKGROUNDER

INTRODUCTION: Wildfire is a natural process necessary to the functioning of many ecosystems -- but it can be both destructive and deadly. Wildfire should rarely come as a surprise, but it often does. And it makes news. Like firefighters, reporters will do a better job if they are prepared for it.

Wildfire came as a surprise to the gorgeous urban hills above Oakland and Berkeley, California, on October 20, 1991. It started as a small fire in ground litter, but high winds pushed it onto dry and overgrown vegetation, up to tree tops, and on to the wood-shingle roofs of houses. Out of control within minutes, it turned into a firestorm, creating its own strong wind and a rain of embers to spread itself. It spread so fast that burning cars blocked roads, hindering people from escaping and firefighters from getting in. Before it was over, it killed 25 people, injured 150, destroyed 2,886 homes, and caused some $1.5 billion in damage. Almost 30 percent of the homeowners did not rebuild.

This year, fires in Washington, New Mexico, Colorado, and Florida have already been getting national headlines. The Cerro Grande fire that ravaged Los Alamos, NM, in early May started as a prescribed burn, and raised special concerns because it threatened an area where nuclear weapons research was being done. Eventually, it destroyed at least 235 homes and burned some 50,000 acres.

But the big headline fires obscure the fact that wildfire is a recurring natural and seasonal event in many parts of the country. As this article was being written in late July, some 59,664 wildfires had already burned 3,231,204 acres nationwide in the year 2000 alone.

WHY COVER IT? Fires provide great visuals and stories of heroism and despair. Wildfires, obviously, get the most coverage when they kill or injure people or destroy homes.

But the less obvious human and environmental impacts of wildfires are as important as the main stories. They affect the livelihood of ranchers, fishing guides, and sawmill hands. They help whole ecosystems regenerate. They can cause other unforeseen impacts like erosion, landslides, and water pollution. They provide jobs for regional economies (or take them away).

STORY IDEAS: Story ideas for wildfire coverage? Once a fire breaks out you probably won't need them. Just keeping up with the basic story will be hard and urgent: how did it start? What has burned so far? What might burn next? What's the weather, and does it hurt or help? Who are the victims and what are their stories? Are firefighting resources on the scene yet? Where are they from and how are they faring? What obstacles do they face? What's the containment plan? Is it working? Will the insurance companies pay?

Your news organization may not have the luxury of looking beyond crisis coverage. But if you do, you will find a world of interesting subjects.

  1. Before a fire even begins you can ask: What's the local area fire danger rating? Is our area vulnerable to a large fire? What preparations are being made now to respond? What other climatological and hydrological events are at play? (Drought? Rainy season?) What kind of natural resources are present to help us withstand/fight a major fire? What kind of hindrances are there (e.g., heavy fuel load on forest floor because of last year's ice storm?) How has new development, which has pushed deeper into once-wild areas, changed our community's risk?

  2. Once the fire is out, what will happen on the land that has been burned? Will ecosystems regenerate? Will land managers re-plant or take other measures to give nature a helping hand?

  3. Once the fire is out, what are the hydrological consequences on the land that has been burned? Will short-term lack of vegetative cover mean increased runoff? Soil erosion? Land- and mud-slides? Water pollution and fish kills? Check with your state USGS office, local water board, or soil conservation district.

  4. What prescribed burns do your local wildland managers have planned? Are they being done in appropriate circumstances and carried out safely? What would be the consequences of not doing them?

  5. What can homeowners do to keep wildfire from damaging or destroying their homes? Fire agencies offer much specific practical advice on this subject. What can people do if they are considering building a new home in a fire-prone area?

  6. What can local and state governments do for wildfire hazard mitigation? For example, building codes that require fire-resistant construction in high-risk areas. Or zoning regulations and road-construction policies that recognize the problems at the urban-wildland interface? Have they done it?

  7. Are there special hazards in your area that could worsen the dangers from wildfire? Federal officials said the Cerro Grande fire that threatened Los Alamos, NM, this summer presented no risk of release of radioactive materials -- but the concern was at least raised. What about pipelines, ordnance, electrical equipment, hazardous wastes, etc.?

  8. How much help is homeowners' fire insurance policy in offsetting fire risk in your area? Is it offered? Do insurers impose any safety requirements? How much insurance can a property owner get -- and how much should they get? What is covered and what isn't? What experiences have people in your area had in settling claims?

  9. Does your area have a wildland/urban interface where potential fire devastation could be especially bad? What can wildland managers do to make things safer? What can homeowners, businesses, and local government do?

  10. What is the fire history of major tracts of wildland in your area? Check with land managers, newspaper morgues, and local historians. Not only may such research give you a story about unaddressed fire risks, but it will give you an instant sidebar the next time a major fire does break out.

  11. How does smoke from wildfire affect the air quality in your area? Is wildfire a chronic regional presence in some seasons? How do prevailing weather conditions in your "airshed" affect smoke dispersal? What are the health and economic effects of smoke? To what extent could a small amount of smoke from a prescribed burning lessen the adverse impact of smoke from a major fire?
BACKGROUND AND CONTEXT: The wildfire that ravaged Yellowstone National Park in 1988 shouldn't have come as a surprise. Between June and September more than 1.6 million acres of Yellowstone and nearby forests burned. Fighting the fires took 10,000 firefighters and more than $120 million.

Since Yellowstone had been established in 1872, it had been the policy of federal agencies running it to try to suppress wildfires when they broke out. It seemed understandable to want to protect a national treasure. But scientists later learned that wildfire had for millennia played an important role in regenerating forest ecosystems and keeping them vital. In 1972, Yellowstone managers adopted a "let burn" policy in hopes of maintaining the ecosystem in a natural state. The problem was that a century of fire suppression had left an unnatural accumulation of fuel. When that fuel finally was ignited in the hot, dry summer of 1988, the fires were unusually large. Policy-makers and the public wrung their hands over whether to fight the fires or let them burn. Today, after the fires, the Yellowstone ecosystem is flourishing.

A policy debate has continued since the 1988 Yellowstone fire -- fueled by a number of other newsworthy incidents, like the loss of 14 smokejumpers in the Storm King, Colorado, fire of July 1994. The timber industry tends to view wildfires as a waste of good timber, while others view suppression of remote fires that threaten neither lives or property as a potential waste of firefighters' lives. The equation becomes even more complex when fires threaten the limited remaining habitat of particular endangered species. Problems are especially likely when human urban development intrudes into fire-prone wildlands -- as it did in the Oakland/Berkeley Hills.

Wildland managers today often see benefits in "prescribed burns," in situation where excess fuel has accumulated or fire-dependent species like lodgepole pine need to be re-established. By deliberately igniting fires under controlled conditions to reduce the fuel load, wildland managers can actually reduce the dangers fires present to people - but they may find little sympathy from the public at large, who dislike fire in any form.

Low-intensity prescribed burns, typical of natural fires, reduce the chance of catastrophic fires which kill the big trees when fire moves up into the canopy of large, old-growth trees.

In December 1995 the Clinton administration put forth its Federal Wildland Fire Policy, which states that "agencies and the public must change their expectation that all wildfires can be controlled or suppressed."

ISSUES: When should wildland fires be suppressed, and when should they be allowed to burn? The December 1995 Federal Wildland Fire Policy attempted to address this issue, but it flares anew every fire season. How should "prescribed fires" be used as a management tool? Under what circumstances? With what precautions? Is prescribed fire an ecologically adequate substitute for natural fire? Do limitations on when and how prescribed burning is done alter or limit the ecological benefits? Is the large annual federal expenditure on fire suppression worthwhile? Should more federal money be spent instead on education, mitigation, prevention, and prescribed fires? Should the Forest Service and other wildland managers offer timber in "salvage sales" on burned land? Environmentalists say this can damage ecosystems or even encourage arson - while timber companies say salvage sales keep a valuable resource from going to waste. Is mechanical thinning of a forest a legitimate policy to reduce fire hazards or simply an excuse to log?

KEY PLAYERS: National Forest offices, Bureau of Land Management state offices, U.S. Geological Survey, National Parks, Bureau of Indian Affairs, Fish and Wildlife Service regional and field offices, NOAA remote fire sensing and fire weather forecasts, state forestry departments, local firefighting agencies.

SOURCES ON THE WEB ... AND PHONE CONTACTS:

  • National Interagency Fire Center (Boise, Idaho). The National Interagency Fire Center (NIFC) in Boise, Idaho, is the nation's support center for wildland firefighting. Seven federal agencies call NIFC home and work together to coordinate and support wildland fire and disaster operations. These agencies include the Bureau of Indian Affairs, Bureau of Land Management, Forest Service, Fish and Wildlife Service, National Park Service, National Weather Service, and Office of Aircraft Services. External Affairs Office, (208) 387-5512.
  • National Fire Information Center at (208) 387-5050 (hours M-F, 7:30 a.m.-4:30 p.m.) Best info may be at your regional NIFC Geographic Area Coordination Center (GACC). USFS Public Affairs Officer Mike Apicello at NIFC, (208) 387-5460. BLM Public Affairs Officer Jack Sept at NIFC, (208) 387-5458.
  • U.S. Geological Survey. The USGS Wildfire Theme Page offers links to a variety of USGS resources related to wildfire. Among them are a system that uses satellite remote-sensing data from the Earth Resources Observation Systems (EROS) to produce maps of the Fire Potential Index (FPI), which is calculated down to 1 km squares and updated every day. The information is fed into maps presented by the U.S. Forest Service in the Wildland Fire Assessment System (see U.S. Forest Service). Call Catherine Haecker at (707) 442-1329 to discuss wildlife impacts of fire, Karen Wood at (703) 648-4447 to discuss mapping fires, or Butch Kinerney to discuss water issues surrounding fires at (703) 648-4732.
  • U.S. Forest Service. Because of the vast tracts of forest it administers, USFS is one of the agencies most involved with wildfire. Most of its Web resources are collected on its Fire and Aviation Web page. The Forest Service uses data from many agencies to map and report fire risks daily on its Wildland Fire Assessment System page. USFS collects fire news. USFS public affairs contacts (headquarters, regions, and research stations). Especially useful is the USFS Fire and Aviation Management Morning Report, which updates daily. Firewise. A consortium of federal agencies sponsors a daily information and news service called Firewise. It offers, among other things, an events calendar and electronic mailing list, a catalogue of background publications, and videotape suitable for b-roll. BLM Office of Fire and Aviation. Don Smurthwaite, PAO, (208) 387-5895.


Last revised January 22, 2013

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