KISATCHIE NATIONAL FOREST, La. (AP) - The scorched earth of
Kisatchie Hills Wilderness crackled under Jim Caldwell's hiking
boots two years ago as he surveyed the toll of wildfires that had
spread over 2,500 acres of the forest's towering long leaf and
loblolly pines.
Here lay a wasteland from catastrophic fire. In a
drought-parched summer fed by 23 days of searing heat of 100-plus
degrees, dry winds fanned the flames and the wildfires spread
haphazardly and consumed a third of the 9,000-acre lush wilderness
area. From his vantage point atop a gravel rock ridge, Caldwell
gazed across a stand of brittle, burnt amber trees, charred pine
bark and cooked soil.
"The forest will heal itself," said Caldwell, a spokesman for
the U.S. Forest Service.
It was the summer of 2000, one of the worst wildfire seasons
ever nationwide for the U.S. Forest Service. That year alone, the
604,000-acre Kisatchie National Forest in central Louisiana - the
state's only national forest - had more than 164 fires and lost
more than 8,500 acres. Hardest hit was Kisatchie Wilderness, an
area of the forest that's congressionally protected from man and
machine, in south Natchitoches Parish.
Now, as similar drought-fueled wildfires rage across the Western
states burning millions of acres of Ponderosa Pine forests,
Caldwell's words are ringing true here at home.
There are telltale signs of fire in the blackened bark, but
spread through the wilderness area is an abundance of sprouting
grasses, fresh foliage, colorful yellow and purple wildflowers, and
leafy holly and huckleberry shrubs. There is an aerial ceiling
spray of rich, green pine needles.
A gray fence lizard tries to blend into the rock but sits
paralyzed under the curious eyes of man. Yes, even wildlife forced
to burrow deep into the ground or escape the destructive fires of
2000 have returned to feed off the thriving plant life, seedlings
and saplings and the insects these piny woods attract.
It's happened in Kisatchie and, in time, it will happen in the
Western states, forestry officials said. Though the Western fires
are larger in scale and catastrophic proportions, there are common
traits that connect the wilderness fire in Kisatchie to the ongoing
wildfires in California and Oregon:
-Extreme drought, little moisture in the vegetation and low
humidity that's currently hovering at barely 5 percent in some
parts of the West.
-Remote, mountainous or hilly areas that are hard to reach by
people and firefighting equipment.
-Plentiful fuel sources, such as thick brush and grasses that
are flammable and carry fire. Wilderness areas, unlike other areas
of the forest, are not generally subject to prescribed burns, which
the U.S. Forest Services routinely uses to help clear and replenish
the forest and reduce the risk of catastrophic fires. Annually, the
federal government burns between 90,0000 to 125,000 acres of
Kisatchie National Forest.
-Finger pointing by the public over who is to blame for the
intense fires. Is it lack of land management practices by the U.S.
Forest Service, or are environmentalists to blame?
"What's happening in the West and here, in my mind's eye, are
not relevant except in the animosity it creates - the thought that
it's all the environmentalists' fault. That we add fuel to the
fire," said Shreveport's Jeffrey Wellborn, chairman of the Sierra
Club Kisatchie Group.
"We have one area that has to be managed as a wilderness,
whereas a large majority of their forests in the West is
wilderness. The concern here might be that we have such little
wilderness area that any fire is a major problem because it wipes
out what we have."
Because of environmental policies, the more than 400
firefighters who fought the Kisatchie Wilderness wildfires had to
seek federal permission to use chain saws to stop the spread of the
fires.
Fire lines were dug by hand and shovel because bulldozers and
other machinery are restricted from the area. Even helicopters that
monitored the fires and doused the flames with hundreds of gallons
of water are typically banned.
"Technically, this is a restricted flight zone," said Ed
Bratcher, team leader for fire for the U.S. Forest Service. Even
with the restrictions, all but about 500 acres of the wilderness
pines were saved in the wildfires of 2000.
Wellborn said he has advocated since the Kisatchie Wilderness
fires that various groups involved get together and determine how
to better handle the situation - the rules and environmental
roadblocks - so a better attack plan can be in place for future
fires. So far, however, no such meeting has taken place, he said.
More than 80 firefighters from Louisiana, including 20 with the
state Department of Agriculture and Forestry and 50 from Kisatchie,
are currently aiding in the fire fight out West. While lightning
causes up to 80 to 90 percent of the fires in the West, the
majority here are manmade - some even at the hands of arsonists,
Bratcher said.
"Hunters and recreationists, they see evidence of the fires and
they see it as a common event on the forest," he said. "But many
people consider Louisiana National Forests as fairly fire resistant
- they consider the forest wet by nature - when that's really not
true."
So far this year, there have been 33 fires and more than 1,500
acres burned. To date, that's 20 percent fewer fires and 7,000 less
acres burned than in 2000.
There are ongoing managing efforts by the forest service to
limit the amount of brush, grasses and other elements that fuel
fires once they do break out.
They're called "prescribed fires" that are started by the
forest service and conducted under scientifically controlled
environmental conditions involving temperature, humidity and wind
conditions. It's a fire risk-reduction method that's recently been
adopted in the Western states, Bratcher said.
But the system is not designed to eliminate the possibility of
fire, which is a natural part of the ecosystem.
"Long leaf pines, with their thick bark and protected needles,
are able to resist fires. They're the most fire-resistant and most
fire-dependent, and to regenerate they require fire," Bratcher
said. "They thrive and replenish through fire. It's an important,
natural process in the ecosystem."
Because of prescribed fires that have been used in Kisatchie
National Forest for more than 50 years - and once used by Native
Americans to clear land - the fires here occur with less intensity
than those presently being experienced on the West Coast.
"With a lot of wilderness designations comes a price,"
Caldwell said. "There are rules that come with it. It's harder to
fight a fire. It's more expensive. But that's what was asked for."
But as the Kisatchie Wilderness fire proves, the forests will
eventually rebound.
"The lesson here: It's still a vibrant place," Caldwell said.
"Everything looked dead, but they're very fire tolerant trees that
revived under a fire regime."

(Copyright 2002 by The Associated Press