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Healthy Forest : An Initiative for Wildfire Prevention and Stronger Communities

The Need for Healthier Forests

Federal lands are increasingly vulnerable to catastrophic fires.

Under normal conditions of forest and rangeland health, fires play a vital role in removing excess fuels and maintaining normal plant composition and density. These fires tend to burn at ground level, generating low temperatures and moving relatively slowly. When burning through forested areas, these fires remove underbrush and dead growth while healthy, mature trees survive. Without active management of forests and rangelands, large, expensive, and damaging wildfires will occur more frequently, causing greater damage to people, property, and ecosystems. Intelligent active land management that minimizes the risk of severe fires is needed to protect forest and rangeland ecosystems.

About 190 million acres of federal forests and rangelands in the lower 48 states face high risks of catastrophic fire due to deteriorating ecosystem health and drought. For instance, many ponderosa pine forests are 15 times more dense than they were a century ago. Where 25 to 35 trees once grew on each acre of forest, now more than 500 trees are crowded together in unhealthy conditions. Drought conditions coupled with years of fuel buildup from fire suppression and reduced thinning make these lands vulnerable to intense and environmentally destructive fires.

This fire season is among the worst in modern history.

  • More than 5.9 million acres have burned so far this year, 500,000 acres more than the previous record-setting 2000 fire season, and more than double the acreage of the 10-year average. Hundreds of millions of trees were destroyed by these fires. Major fires burned in Alaska, Arizona, California, Colorado, Georgia, Idaho, Minnesota, Montana, New Mexico, Nevada, Oregon, South Dakota, Utah, Washington, and Wyoming.

  • Fires are burning with greater speed and intensity than ever before. For example, the 468,000-acre Rodeo Fire in Arizona grew from 800 acres to 46,000 acres in just one day, destroying homes and forests owned by the White Mountain Apache Tribe. The 137,000-acre Hayman Fire was five times bigger than the previous largest fire in Colorado's modern history, and forced evacuations in over 80 communities. The 471,000-acre Biscuit Fire is the largest fire in Oregon's modern history, threatening over 4,000 homes. The 147,000-acre McNally Fire threatened sequoias along the Trail of 100 Giants in California.

    Catastrophic wildfires harm people, property, and the environment.

    Harm to People and Local Communities

  • Firefighters Are At Risk: Large, severe wildfires create unsafe conditions for both firefighters and the public. Twenty wildland firefighters have been killed this year. Over the last ten years, 189 wildland firefighters have been killed, and hundreds have been injured. A national survey revealed that nearly 83 percent of all firefighters identified "fuels reduction" as the single most important factor for improving their margin of safety on wildfires (Wildland Firefighter Safety Awareness Study, Tri-Data, 1996).

    Large fires cause significant air pollution

  • Increased Air Pollution: Smoke from wildfires can significantly affect air quality in neighboring cities and towns. Several Colorado communities experienced significantly impaired air quality caused by fires for several weeks this summer; Denver experienced the highest level of fine particulates ever recorded in the state. The 1999 Big Bar Fire Complex in northern California caused violations of federal and state health-based air quality standards for 22 days, and closed schools in two counties for several days.

  • Fires Force Thousands to Evacuate: Tens of thousands of people from 200 communities were forced to flee wildfires this summer. In Colorado alone, more than 77,000 residents were evacuated from their homes for periods of a few days to several weeks and the resulting damage and loss of property cost the insurance industry more than $80 million.

  • Property Damage: This year more than 2,300 homes and structures were destroyed by wildfire, causing millions of dollars in damage.

    Disruption to Local Economies

    Large, catastrophic fires threaten economic sustainability of communities dependent on wildlands and natural resources. Tourism and recreational interests (such as outfitters, guides, camping and fishing), the wood products industry, ranching, and the service industries that support them are all affected by the loss of resources to wildfires. Destroyed forests and damaged watersheds impose a variety of economic costs to communities.

  • Reduced Tourism: In July, smoke from the Big Elk Fire reduced tourism in Rocky Mountain National Park, depressing the local economy. In Sedona, Arizona, occupancy rates and revenues at one popular resort hotel fell to less than half of normal mid-summer rates.

  • Damage to Municipal Watersheds: Severe wildfires degrade water quality, decrease storage capacity, and jeopardize the physical structure of municipal watersheds. For instance, the 1996 Buffalo Creek Fire burned 12,000 acres in Colorado's South Platte River drainage, forcing the Denver Water Board to spend more than $20 million to address sediment problems caused by erosion into one of Denver's primary municipal water supply reservoirs.


    Environmental Damage

    Severe wildfires can damage soils, water quality and quantity, fisheries, plant communities, wildlife habitat, and endanger species. Damage to watersheds and loss of resources may have cascading effects outside of the burned areas. For example, fisheries can be severely impacted by sedimentation and siltation following fires. Rehabilitation can reduce but cannot eliminate these impacts.

  • Damaged Fisheries: Critical trout fisheries throughout the West and salmon and steelhead fisheries in the Pacific Northwest can suffer from increased water temperatures, sedimentation, and changes in water quality and chemistry.

  • Destroyed Endangered Species Habitat: Ironically, while fuels reduction projects are often delayed or prevented due to litigation over Endangered Species Act requirements, catastrophic fires that could be prevented by these projects can have devastating consequences for endangered species. For instance, the Biscuit fire in Oregon has destroyed 125,000 to 150,000 acres of spotted owl habitat.

    Fire so hot it can sterilize the soil

  • Soil Sterilization: Wildfires often require extensive site rehabilitation to protect resources and nearby communities from floods and landslides. Topsoils exposed to extreme heat can become water-repellant, and soil nutrients may be lost. It can take decades or even centuries for ecosystems to recover to pre-fire conditions.

  • Soil Erosion: The protective covering provided by foliage and dead organic matter is removed, leaving the soil fully exposed to wind and water erosion. Accelerated soil erosion occurs, causing landslides and threatening aquatic habitats.

  • Spread of Invasive Plant Species: Non-native woody plant species frequently invade burned areas. When weeds become established they can dominate the plant cover over broad landscapes, and become difficult and costly to control.

  • Disease and Insect Infestations: Unless diseased or insect-infested trees are swiftly removed, infestations and disease can spread to healthy forests and private lands. Timely active management actions are needed to remove diseased or infested trees.

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