Experts Take Hard Look At Wildfire Policies

BOISE, Idaho (AP) -- The United States needs to stop thinking of wildfire as a menace or a tool and start considering the overall health of the land instead, a wildfire expert told foresters and government officials Thursday.

Instead of debating over thinning forests and suppressing fires, fire managers should deal with the health of the entire globe by trying to reduce global warming, Arizona State University Professor Stephen Pyne said at the conference held by The Idaho Statesman and the Andrus Center for Public Policy.

That would help reduce catastrophic fires, said Pyne, who has written two books on America's fire management practices.

``We can't cut our way out of the problem, we can't burn our way out. We can't suppress and we can't walk away,'' Pyne said. ``It is not simply what was done that has troubled fires' past history _ it was how it was done. It would be a sad irony if we only replaced state-sponsored forestry with state-sponsored ecology.''

The fledgling U.S. Forest Service and its predecessors saw fire as a problem that destroyed far more natural resources than logging, Pyne said. When the Forest Service gained control of the national forests in 1905, its mission was to completely stop wildfire.

``Firefighters saw fire as their first and foremost foe,'' Pyne said. ``In 1902 there was little one could do about large fires except flee. In 1910, the government could marshal forces to fight back and did so at considerable cost in money and lives.''

Ultimately, Pyne said, the forests became packed with timber and tame fires became raging ones.

In recent decades, forest policy has swung the other way, with more emphasis on controlled burning and thinning forests, he said. Now, he said, global warming is likely becoming the leading cause of huge wildfires.

``Giant smoke plumes rising over the northern Rockies are not the big burn of today. For that, look at the industrial plumes of urban construction,'' he said. ``These are the fire practices of our times, and likely increasingly the drivers of fire in our wildlands.''

Earth is a planet ``stuffed with combustion and starved with flame,'' Pyne said.

Today's policies of reducing the threat of wildfire by thinning forests will likely remain for a while, Pyne said. Though the practice can aid firefighters, he said, it does not consider the health of the entire forest.

``It's a forest health issue and not simply a forest fuels issue,'' Pyne said.

Conference panelist and University of Montana professor James Burchfield said the public is no longer willing to buy the idea that trees are simply fuel for wildfire.

``We've got to be really careful that we don't talk about healthy forest as all thinned forests,'' he said. When soil composition, seed dispersal and other factors are considered, Burchfield said, even a severely burned forest can be considered healthy.