Old Fire

Nov. 2, 2003

By Jacob Quinn Sanders
The Sun

The Old Fire has burned for nine days, but it has been coming since 1980.

Changes in fire suppression, manpower and policy most noticeable in the past two decades left federal, state and local forestry specialists and firefighters with little to do but wait.

Firefighters’ priorities are lives, property and natural resources, in that order. Tens of thousands of people and billions of dollars in homes in the San Bernardino Mountains at first kept firefighters too busy evacuating residents and doing what they could to safeguard homes to mount an all-out challenge to the Old Fire.

By the time they could, it was the last of their priorities that posed the greatest risk. Dense stands of dry trees loomed over brush, grasses and the remains of their earlier generations. The vegetation was so thick in places that water dropped from helicopters and planes could not penetrate the canopy to reach flames on the forest floor. Drought and the bark beetle seemed to have done everything to set fire conditions but light a match.

“This fire shows us that collectively we need to change,” said Mike Dietrich, San Bernardino National Forest fire management officer and fire chief for the U.S. Forest Service. “This forest is likely to become the epicenter of forest management issues for years to come.”

Rules of the forest

In 1976, Congress passed the National Forest Management Act,which defined how on-the-ground foresters could care for what is now 191 million acres of Forest Service land. The Sierra Club Legal Defense Fund filed more than 50 lawsuits against national forest managers, claiming they had violated the act’s provisions. Environmental activists, mostly in the West, also sued claiming violations of the Endangered Species Act, which Congress had passed in 1973.

Logging projects choked and withered, and by 1980 the exemptions granted for certain projects under the National Forest Management Act expired.

Fire fuels multiplied exponentially as national forests moved away from active management. None of the 160 Forest Service employees assigned to the 660,000-acre San Bernardino National Forest works on future vegetation issues.

The public mood shifted against management as well. Growing populations in some of the forests used their collective voices to call for an end to all fires, including the prescribed burns set by Forest Service firefighters to clear layers of undergrowth and dead trees. Efforts to manage national forests stopped completely by 1996.

Dietrich mentioned the June 2001 Hemlock Fire in the San Bernardino Mountains as one of the reasons for that. A prescribed burn, it flew from firefighters’ control and burned 1,000 more acres than they planned.

“But I call it the relative-bad scale,” Dietrich said. “For example, my daughter came home with her tongue pierced. My ex-wife went nuts. I looked at it like this: It’s not a tattoo, she’s not pregnant and she’s not on drugs. So, relatively, it’s not so bad. This fire we have now is bad.”

Thomas Bonnicksen, a forest science professor at Texas A&M University who studies the San Bernardino Mountains, arrived at the burn areas Thursday on a fact-finding trip for the U.S. House of Representatives Resources Committee.

He acknowledged that 1980 was a critical year, although he had two other periods in mind as well. The first: 1910, when Idaho fires led to what he called the federal “10 a.m. policy,” whereby all prescribed fires had to be out by 10 a.m. the following day.

The second goes back much farther.

“What we forgot was 12,000 years of Native Americans using controlled burns to manage these forests before the Europeans arrived,” Bonnicksen said. “They managed it so well that we thought they were beautiful enough to set aside as national parks.”

Larger and hotter

With the National Forest Management Act came guarantees that local governments had the right to reject the plans developed for nearby public forests.

Barry Randolph, a battalion chief with the California Department of Forestry and Fire Protection’s Tuolumne-Calaveras unit, said getting approval to burn could take two or three years.

“You’re talking about permits, environmental studies, air-quality assessments,” Randolph said in the Sunday-morning briefing on the Old Fire. “The archaeologists and biologists have been laid off, they aren’t there anymore. And some approval can always fall through at the last minute, and by then you’ve lost your window to burn safely. You’re done.”

He said the trees he saw in the mountains, dry and weak,resembled stacked cords of firewood. And all along the ground, he saw kindling.

“What I’ve seen is larger fires and hotter fires,” Randolph said. “We had big, hot fires before, but when I look back on it we’ve had a lot more of the big ones in recent years.”

From 1960 to 1984, an average of 162,276 national forest acres burned every year. Across the next 15 years, an average of 670,018 acres burned each year.

As of Sunday, the Old Fire had burned 91,281 acres and destroyed 851 homes since it began Oct. 25. The adjacent Grand Prix Fire, which started Oct. 21, seared 59,448 acres and consumed 61 homes.

Most of the acreage burned was in the San Bernardino Mountains.An ideal forest would have 50 trees per acre, said Tom Lavagnino, a U.S. Forest Service fire information officer. The San Bernardino National Forest has 250 in some places, 500 in others and spots with more than 1,000.

“You can’t have that butch-haircut look along the ridges like you have around here,’ Lavagnino said. “Even the freeways don’t stop fires here.”

Danger, optimism

Steep mountains, Santa Ana winds and ready fuel helped the fires grow large enough that they had their own weather systems.

“What this should mean to people,’ Bonnicksen said, “is that this is the first forest to burn at this density and with this level of destruction, but it is not the last. It could happen anywhere and should never be allowed to happen.”

The day Bonnicksen arrived in San Bernardino, the U.S. Senate passed the Healthy Forests Restoration Act, which advocates management of the 55 national forests.

But the Bush administration had already declined an emergency request Gov. Gray Davis made in April for $430 million to fight bark-beetle infestations in Southern California’s forests. And of the $53 million the Forest Service budgeted for fuel-reduction projects in California in fiscal 2003, only $4 million went to the San Bernardino, Cleveland, Angeles and Los Padres national forests in the Southland.

Even the fires themselves have done little to reduce risk. Most of the areas burned were in places with predominantly healthy trees, according to the Mountain Area Safety Task Force. What is left in burned sections of the San Bernardino National Forest is scorched earth and few trees capable of growing seeds to replenish what the mountains lost.

“There is still plenty of danger,” Dietrich said.

The Forest Service this year began collecting seeds from healthy trees in the San Bernardino Mountains and will continue in 2004.

“This is not a one-year process,” Dietrich said. “It’s more like a 10- to 20-year process.”

When he spoke of rebuilding, Dietrich spoke more softly than he had in the rest of the interview. Perhaps it is too early to mention it, he said, but there is healthy optimism that the Forest Service can overcome decades and centuries of setbacks in the San Bernardino Mountains.

“We’re looking forward to designing a sustainable forest that would last 100 to 300 years,” he said. “This may have given us the chance to do that.”

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