BEND, Ore. (AP) - A full assessment of the wildfire risk facing
the nation has to take into account cultural values as well as the
standard scientific factors, such as fuel buildups, a U.S. Forest
Service scientist told a conference meeting about wildfire.
"Risk is purely a cultural concept. If we don't care, it's not
a risk," said Colin Hardy, a fire behavior analyst at the Fire
Sciences Laboratory in Missoula, Mont.
Hardy noted in his talk Wednesday that a widely publicized
Forest Service estimate that 39 million acres of the interior West
faces a high risk of catastrophic wildfire was based on someone's
one-day assessment of maps to produce testimony for a Congressional
committee, not science.
A more scientific assessment based on forest types, how long
natural fire has been excluded from forests by firefighting
efforts, fuel buildups and the likelihood that key ecological
components could be lost, came up with 46 million acres of the West
facing moderate to severe risk of wildfire.
But even that assessment can only be used on a broad landscape
level, and cannot be extrapolated to a specific locality, as many
people want to do, he said.
"This isn't a map of good or bad fires or high or low risk.
This is a map of historical fire regimes," Hardy said. "If what
you want to see ecologically happens, you might call this a good
fire. If it's in your backyard, it's a bad fire."
Hardy was among a series of speakers at a conference titled,
"Fire in Oregon's Forests: Assessing the Risks, Affects and
Treatment Options," sponsored by the Oregon Forest Resources
Institute and the Oregon Department of Forestry.
Jim Rochelle, a consulting biologist, said the most significant
effects of wildfire on wildlife come from changing habitat.
"There will be winners and losers when habitat is changed,"
Rochelle said. More dead trees, for example, provide nesting places
for some birds. Killing trees encroaching on a meadow creates more
edge habitat for deer and elk.
Rochelle said there are risks to some threatened and endangered
species from thinning forests, but the risk of losing an entire
habitat to wildfire tend to be greater, particularly when an
organism has a small home range.
State Forester Jim Brown said Oregon needs to take a new look at
how much to spend on fighting wildfire in light of the fact that 77
percent of the state's forests are at moderate to severe risk of
wildfire and protecting timber is no longer the primary reason
Oregonians want to see their forests protected.
"If you are managing for high conservation values and get into
a let-it-burn approach, it takes a very different type of
organization and resources," Brown said. "We've got to
re-calibrate what the most efficient level (of firefighting
spending) is in light of those policies. When you get overwhelmed,
as we did this summer, it gets more complicated."
In the keynote address, former U.S. Forest Service chief Jack
Ward Thomas said another "quick fix" of environmental laws to
overhaul management of national forests so they are less
susceptible to wildfire has a poor chance of long-term success.
"A quick fix is symptomatic that things don't work right,"
Thomas said in an interview. "It means somebody needs to look at
the real problem."
Thomas characterized current the tangle of laws governing public
lands as a "snafu" that has been decades in the making, adding
that one more quick fix like the suspension of environmental laws
known as the Salvage Rider, which Congress enacted to get logging
moving in the Northwest amid court orders protecting spotted owl
habitat, may be justified in the short run by the danger of
wildfire.
But he added that over the long run, quick fixes make for poor
public policy, predicting that another, such as President Bush's
Healthy Forests Initiative, will trigger a political uproar and
further erode the credibility of the Forest Service and other
agencies. He suggested more careful and comprehensive action is
needed to get environmental laws affecting public lands into a
manageable state.
Appointed by President Clinton in 1994, Thomas became the first
wildlife biologist to serve as head of the Forest Service. He is
now a professor of wildlife conservation at the University of
Montana.


(Copyright 2002 by The Associated Press. All Rights Reserved.)