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11/7/2012 12:55:00 PM Email this articlePrint this article 
Experts claim prevention could reduce chance of catastrophic fires

By Vince Lovato
Mirror Editor

While government officials are concerned with mudslides, flooding and ecological recovery from the recent fires, some believe better forest management could help prevent potentially catastrophic burns.

The Table Mountain Fire and the Wenatchee Complex Fire alone, both in the Okanogan-Wenatchee National Forest, damaged almost 100,000 acres and cost taxpayers more than $12 million as of Oct. 3, and that figure continues to rise.

Some experts believe that major fires are likely to occur more frequently unless forest management practices change.

U.S. Rep. Doc Hastings often calls the federal government's forest management poor.

"Each year, Washington's national forests grow three times faster than they die," wrote Hastings in his weekly column. "The lack of proper federal land management imperils neighboring state, local, tribal and private lands that are often better managed through thinning, timber sales and other activities."

Much of this federal inaction is caused by the Forest Service's fear of lawsuits from environmental groups, using the Endangered Species Act and other laws, to block local, state and federal timber fuels reduction and thinning projects, Hastings writes.

Yet some say lawsuits intended to save forests have resulted in their destruction and the deaths or relocation of countless animals.

Hastings would like to allow salvaging lumber, removing dead or diseased trees, maintained access to fire roads, and removing ash and sediment.

Wenatchee Outdoors blogger Andy Dappen believes logging, then over management, has allowed trees to grow too closely together and thicken combustible underbrush.

"The low-density, large, old trees that withstood smaller wildfires for centuries have been removed first by logging and, more recently, through stand-destroying high-severity fire," Dappen writes. "Logged and burned areas have frequently been replanted in very high densities. On top of this, a policy of suppressing most fires has dominated fire management for nearly a century. This policy has prevented low-severity fires from clearing the forest floor of small trees, fallen logs, brush, and other combustibles."

Dappen, a freelance outdoors journalist, is calling for state and county governments, land management agencies, environmental organizations, and the public to pull together on a fire prevention strategy.

Dappen cites research by Paul Hessburg, Ph.D., a Research Landscape Ecologist with the Forestry Sciences Lab in Wenatchee, that shows pictures of thinner nearby forests from 80 years ago that were much more fire resistant.

"A 1934 picture showed hills near Wenatchee with patchy forests that were mottled with clearings and populated with broadly spaced, big trees. The 2010 picture, by contrast, showed an epidemic of trees," Dappen writes. "The clearings had filled in and the hills were crammed with small and medium-sized trees. The fuel of so many trees in so many layers, Hessburg explained, almost guaranteed that once a fire got going...the flames would do far more than clean house; they would ignite the hillside into a forest-destroying wall of fire. Some of the very forests Hessburg used to illustrate the problem are now, as he predicted, gone."

Dappen calls for some controlled burns like the ones used by Rangers in the Entiat District of the Okanogan-Wenatchee National Forest.

Matt Dahlgreen, a retired forest ecologist with the Entiat District, said prescribed fire is, "one of the most cost-effective tools for reducing fire hazard while, at the same time, returning our forests to a more diverse and sustainable condition," according to Dappen.

Dahlgreen claimed a number of tree stands treated with controlled burns survived the massive Tyee Fire while neighboring swatches were burned to dust.

Vince Lovato in the editor of the Chelan Mirror, 509.682.2213.

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