Forests: better green than black: protecting our forests from wildfires has become a national priority.

Author:Smith, Jennifer
 
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Hayman ... Cerro Grande ... Rodeo-Chediski ... as these fires raged across the intermountain West the last couple of years, the issue of forest management catapulted into the national spotlight. As thousands of firefighters battled blazes in western forests, Congress was fighting its own battle over how to improve forest health and decrease the catastrophic nature of wildfires.

Severe droughts, bark beetle infestations, timber harvesting, grazing and more than 100 years of fire suppression have made our forests vulnerable to wildfires. Hot summer weather, lightning strikes and fierce winds can produce the wildfires that wreak havoc.

Although natural conditions affect the type and severity of wildfires, the presence of homes in an area exacerbates the problem. The firefighting techniques used by the U.S. Forest Service are geared for wildland blazes and are different from those used to fight fires in populated areas. Rural areas adjacent to cities (called the urban wildland interface) have become extremely attractive to builders. More than 20 million acres of privately owned wildlands were developed between 1970 and 1990. The homes are often built of wood and are surrounded by thick forests, presenting a great risk when fire breaks out.

Firefighters must modify how they fight blazes in these areas to help save houses, but homeowners have a responsibility as well. "Residential losses don't have to occur," says Jack Cohen with the Fire Sciences Lab's Fire Behavior Project, "even during extreme wildfires." Research shows that if the area around the home (about l00 to 200 feet) is cleared of dead grasses and wood and trees are thinned, there's a good chance the home won't be lost in a wildfire. "But that area is typically privately owned," he says. "That means homeowners have to take the actions necessary to reduce their homes' vulnerability to wildfires."

KEEPING FORESTS HEALTHY

No one questions the benefits of healthy forests. They provide homes for wildlife, spawning grounds for some of our nation's most valuable fisheries and buffers against flood damage. They contain the main sources of our nation's drinking water. Even New York City's water comes from the watersheds in the Catskill Mountains.

How best to protect the forests is where the controversy arises and is what Congress struggled with last summer.

President Bush's Healthy Forests Initiative (which became law in December 2003) focuses heavily on reducing the fuels--young trees, brush...

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