March 22, 2010

Forest Fires in 1910 and 2010

Even as the snow has been falling, I have been reading Timothy Egan's The Big Burn: Teddy Roosevelt & the Fire that Saved America.

The "Big Burn," a convergence of lightning-caused wildfires in August 1910, burned parts of Idaho, Montana, Washington, and British Columbia.

It covered an area larger than Las Animas County, Colorado, or almost as large as the San Luis Valley. More than eighty people were killed, most of them untrained, hastily recruited firefighters.

Author Timothy Egan follows the same technique that he used in his Dust Bowl history, The Worst Hard TIme: following a small group of characters through the event.

One of the central characters is Forest Service assistant ranger (no college degree) Ed Pulaski (yes, pulaski as in the tool), who saves his crew when the forest explodes around them but who is then shafted by the nascent Forest Service bureaucracy.

So how did the Big Burn "save America"?  Apparently Egan is thinking like this:

Theodore Roosevelt, inspired by Gifford Pinchot and  John Muir, established many national forests, parks, and wildlife refuges.

The national forests were under the direction of Pinchot's new Forest Service, which was underpaid, spread thin, and generally got little respect in the West.

Although the Forest Service could not stop the Big Burn (and probably could not do so today), its truly heroic efforts were a public-relations victory.

That p.r. victory ensured that Roosevelt's vision of national forests, conservation, and public resources managed (in theory) for the benefit of all did not perish under his less-committed successors, notably the blubbery, indecisive William Howard Taft.

Thus the national forests, which Roosevelt  saw as a vital part of our national heritage, were preserved, hence "saving America."

On the down side, the catastrophe of the Big Burn produced the Forest Service policy of putting out all fires as quickly as possibly, which we now pay for in terms of a new generation of catastrophic fires fed by fuel-rich forests. 

For more, here is Smithsonian magazine's interview with Timothy Egan. You can listen to Egan's interview on NPR's Fresh Air.

Quibbles: Appreciative audiences shout, "Hear, hear," not  "Here, here" (what would that mean, in this place?). About half of Egan's statements regarding firearms are implausible or nonsensical. Apparently no one at Houghton Mifflin Harcourt can edit such statements.

And where on earth did he get the idea that Coeur d'Alene means "Heart of the Awl"? Wikipedia, evidently‚ and maybe he just cut-and-pasted. There is a reason why university professors tell their students not to trust Wikipedia. Alene is a old-fashioned girl's name, as a French friend once put it to me when looking at the map of Idaho.

But one thing early foresters such as William Weigle, first supervisor of the Coeur d'Alene National Forest, never thought about was the carbon footprint of forest fires.

Prescribed Fires Help Forests Sequester Carbon Dioxide?

When you watch a forest fire smoke plume rise into the sky, maybe you think about all the carbon it releases. Forest ecologist Jennifer Balch does.

In a recent NPR interview, she argued that her and others' research shows that prescribed burns, which do release carbon into the atmosphere, nevertheless make it possible for forests to regenerate and store even more carbon.

But one nagging question has been which puts more carbon up into the atmosphere, a series of small, prescribed burns or the occasional big wildfire? So, [Christine] Wiedinmyer developed a computer model to calculate that, using the record of both kinds of fires in the western U.S. from 2001 to 2008. She published the results in the journal Environmental Science and Technology. Although the numbers are rough, the outcome is clear: prescribed fires do emit carbon but much less than the wildfires they prevent.
While some prescribed burns have gone notably out of control, others have worked well. Either way there is a risk, but the risk of a blow-up may be worse.


Steve Bodio said...

Chas-- I'm getting "not found" on the interview link-- can you send me a copy?

Chas S. Clifton said...

Bad link, fixed now. Sorry.