When land wants to burn

As Washington state continues to fight the largest wildfire outbreak since 1994, and in the wake of this summer's Western Governor's Association conference in Coeur d'Alene with fire-fighting efforts a major topic, one hopes a cohesive, nationwide fire-management strategy will eventually be undertaken by the U.S. Forest Service, in conjunction with local fire-fighting agencies.

According to the Northwest Forest Protection Alliance, fewer than 5 percent of national forests have a fire management plan in place, though a National Interagency Fire Center exists in Boise that would be able to direct the execution of these plans. Furthermore, millions in public money continues to be spent combating fires, many of which are burning in unpopulated areas, even bordering on designated wilderness areas where fires should be allowed to burn naturally.

This money could be much better spent to help protect homes already in fire-threatened wildland and urban "interface zones," perhaps by encouraging, even requiring, the clearing of brush at least 40 meters around structures in fire country, and encouraging the use of metal roofs instead of wood.

Of course, the greatest fire threat continues to come from humans. With the raw tinder of dried-up slash left behind in the wake of large-scale logging in clear-cut areas, as well as logging roads that wind deep into the heart of national forests, carelessness in the form of tossed cigarettes and unattended or forgotten campfires, and habitual logging of public lands, over time, contribute greatly to the threat of massive wildfires. Forest Service spin of forest "thinning" to promote "fire suppression" is simply a euphemism for more logging.

The concept of timber sales to decrease fire risk is a self-serving mantra of the Forest Service to encourage and continue one of the largest government-subsidized projects in this country, i.e., the continual logging of public lands, which taxpayers spend millions of dollars a year to keep in business. Granted, the forest floor must be thinned to keep natural, regular fires from spreading completely out of control and reaching the upper crowns of trees, and apparently the Icicle Fire near Leavenworth is being treated in this sensible manner.

A healthy forest floor is best thinned through the natural use of fire that burns up the underbrush, making way for new pioneering trees, but doesn't spread to tree crowns, and leaves larger trees largely unscathed. Over time, fires do help, not hurt, the forest. They are as much a part of the natural ecosystem as rain, and need to be allowed to burn where it is safe and practical to do so.

Where fires must be fought, there must be a well-managed, concentrated effort, working from well-thought-out yet flexible plans. But when the land wants to burn as badly as it does this year, humans must realize fire is inevitable, and fight fires in areas only where it affects people and their personal property.

Tommy Hough is a professional broadcaster in Seattle.