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Acknowledging the role of fire in the forest

In the fifth century B.C.E., Aeschylus summarizes the plight of the Fire-Bringer in his play “Prometheus Bound.”

“Now have we journeyed to a spot of earth remote — the Scythian wild, a waste untrod. And now, Hephaestus, thou must execute the task our father laid on thee, and fette this malefactor to the jagged rocks in adamantine bonds infrangible; for thine own blossom of all forging fire he stole and gave to mortals.”

In Greek mythology, the god Prometheus took fire from the gods and brought it to the people of earth and taught them how it was to be used. For this, Zeus punished him by tying him to a rock where each day an eagle ate his liver; during the night, his liver would grow back to potentially immortalize his suffering. Hercules, rebelling against Zeus, freed Prometheus.

The tale of fire in the U.S. National Forests is not so different. Fire had a role in the forest, but then, it came in a full-force blaze.

The Great Fire of 1910 burned three million acres in Montana, Washington and Idaho and took the lives of 87 people, and the reaction, in a way, was the binding of Prometheus, the fire-bringer, because for decades after this the U.S. Forest Service would do whatever it could to keep fires of any kind out of the forests. The Great Fire instilled in the public a fear of, and government opposition to, forest fires. The anti-fire sentiment became the main thrust of the fire service. Wildfires were put out.

The Forest Service promptly implemented the “out by 10 a.m.” policy — all forest fires must be put out by the morning. In 1944, the stigma was reinforced by the Forest Service icon Smokey Bear and his slogan, “Only you can prevent forest fires.”

However, keeping a forest from burning did not keep a forest healthy.

The management of wildfires in the U.S. is repeatedly referenced to in scholarly and scientific studies with introductory words such as “failure,” “mistake” and sometimes even “large policy failure.” It changed the makeup of the forests. Now, the role of fire in the ecology is recognized; the past fire suppression policies are accepted as mistakes.

Historically, there was fire in southwest Colorado. Researchers, foresters, fire ecologists and silviculturists use fire scars to discover the historic fire pattern for a forest. A fire scar is a notch taken from a dead or living tree showing the rings of a tree. The years of fire will leave a distinctive mark in the ring from the damage the tree incurred at the time.

According to Roz Wu, fire ecologist with the Pagosa Ranger District, these fire scars show that there was a medium-sized fire once approximately every 10 years.

With the absence of this regularly occurring, low-intensity forest fire, the forests are no longer the wilderness, untouched by western economy. The stands of spruce, pine and aspen have grown old, together. Too many trees, grown too close together and all vying for the same limited nutrients of sun and water, have become weak. Many have not been able to defend themselves against the spruce beetle epidemic that is ravishing the trees of this area.

To mitigate the beetle epidemic, the dwarf mistletoe and witch’s broom seen like mangled birds’ nests in the trees, the U.S. Forest Service has begun thinning by vegetation management. However, this is not enough to create a resilient and sustainable forest; fire must be reintroduced.

Wu explained that small diameter trees, such as Engelmann spruce or ponderosa pine, dominate the forest, but would not be there if fire had played its proper role.

“In pre-settlement ponderosa pine forests, there were maybe 40 stems per acre,” Pagosa Ranger District forester Steve Hartvigsen says. “Now, there are over one hundred.”

The pre-settlement (prior to European settlement in North America) makeup of the San Juan National Forest, as discovered through research focusing on the trees, fire scars and old texts, was open, park-like stands.

“The ponderosa pine was in clumps, and there was more grass,” Wu explained.

Imagine a period film depicting Victorian England. A man with a top hat gallops through the forests on his horse. A tree branch neither knocks off his hat, nor hits his face. The stand is more open than the dense forests that have become the standard around Pagosa Springs. This open condition is maintained by natural, low-intensity forest fires. The weaker trees, and sometimes younger trees, die, but the rest become stronger and more resilient, able to survive through drought conditions and to resist disease and beetle attacks.

“To shift from broad-scale, low-intensity fires in low-elevation forests, occurring every seven to fifteen years (in the ponderosa pine) and then move into a fire exclusion period of one hundred thirty to one hundred forty years is far beyond any climatic cycle that has surfaced,” Hartvigsen said.

The danger of this lack of fire is not only a weakened forest, but a forest prone to large scale forest fires — hard to control and a potential threat to the wildland urban interface. The underbrush that was able to build up over the decades, at least five under which a policy dictated no prescribed burning. This means that later wildfires broke out, which were harder to bring under control, as well as being more destructive than what otherwise might have been the case.

Simple thinning of the forest through cutting and removing timber is not enough to bring a forest back to health or keep the threat of large-scale wildfires at bay.

In their study, “Assessing Landscape-Level Influences of Forest Restoration on Animal Populations,” professors and researchers James Battin and Thomas Sisk reported that the close spacing of ponderosa pines, “creates favorable conditions for mistletoe seed dispersal, while the weakened health of trees lowers resistance to parasitism. ... Fire exclusion has also inadvertently protected infested and weakened trees.”

According to Scott Wagner, fuel forester for the Pagosa Ranger District, the Forest Service began to look at fire as a natural process in the 1960s and started allowing wildfires to burn at that time. However, federal fire policy wasn’t significantly modified until 1995 to recognize and embrace the role of fire as an essential ecological process, and still now prescribed burns are not popular with the general public. This policy change and widespread scientific and philosophical acceptance of fires freed Prometheus, and now, fire is being reintroduced to the forests in its proper role.

“The San Juan National Forest has had a Prescribed Fire Management Plan in place since 1997 which allows for management of wildfires to achieve resource objectives,” Wagner said.

However, Forest Service personnel understand the public’s dislike of fire — the smoke effects health conditions, it might not look that pretty, it is not healthy or pleasant to breathe; however, it is what Wu calls a routine inconvenience when living in the West, “a landscape that evolved with fire.”

The Forest Service now implements regular prescribed burns; however, the amount of forest that they are able to treat remains small due in large part to budget constraints.

A little over a year ago, the Mixed-Conifer Working Group was created, a group of concerned citizens, foresters, landowners, etc. who are searching for collaborative approaches improving the health of forests and prioritizing areas of treatment which will have the greatest positive impact. The group understands that there is no one answer or approach that will heal the forests, but the Group does not wish to sit and watch. Instead, they choose to be proactive.

“If issues are not addressed, significant portions of this forest type will be less resilient to disturbance, disturbance could increase, expansion of habitat degradation, insects and their kill will become prevalent, tourism and economic opportunities could decline,” Hartvigsen said.

So the Forest Service will continue its efforts in vegetation and fuels management to, “sustain the health, diversity and productivity of the nation’s forests.” In this way, the service strives to stay true to its motto of, “Caring for the land and serving the people.”

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