Hysteria around forest fire runs deep but one Oregon state Senator may have taken his rhetoric a little too far.
A prescribed fire on the Deschutes National Forest. Contrary to outdated ideology, fire is generally a good thing for Northwest forest ecosystems. (Photo by Brett Cole)
Whenever I think of the human reaction to fire (be it forest fire or the raging inferno at the factory on the evening news) I'm always reminded of Beavis and Butthead.
Those not familiar with the seminal Mike Judge cartoon from the 1990s might not remember the reaction of the two teenage punks (Beavis in particular) whenever images of flame flashed on the TV screen the pair were perpetually glued to.
"Fire! Fire!," was the predictable and excited cry.
While anti-role models Beavis and Butthead celebrated fire in an unhealthy way, when it comes to forest fires, we have the opposite problem - an outdated and unfounded fear of all fire.
This fire fear mongering was recently on display in an Oregonian op-ed by state Sen. Doug Whitsett. Here's an excerpt of his opinion essay:
Federal, state and private foresters alike pointed to the non-management of federal forest resources that led up to this disastrous event. This lack of management has caused an extreme accumulation of ground and ladder fuels that virtually ensures a fire holocaust under dry and windy summer conditions. The predictable outcome of huge accumulations of grass, brush, and diseased and dying trees on federal lands is that even more wildfires will develop into still worse holocausts.
Labeling forest fires (naturally occurring events that are, at times, essential for forest health and regrowth) "holocausts" does not a constructive dialogue make. If you took a look in a dictionary, "holocaust" is traditionally used to refer to the actual event where millions lost their lives during World War II or to an event where a catastrophic number of lives were lost due to fire (ie: "nuclear holocaust").
Sen. Whitsett's choice of language is at best inaccurate and incendiary at at worst offensive.
In the op-ed he claims: "The fire totally consumed the trees on nearly 40,000 acres and caused as much as 75 percent tree mortality on an additional 35,000 acres of forestland."
Oregon Wild's Conservation & Restoration and Coordinator, Doug Heiken, attended a field tour of the fire in September and had some thoughts, summarized in these bullet points:
- It is unlikely that trees were totally consumed on a single acre.
- The reference to "as much as 75 percent mortality" could also read "as little as 25% mortality" and be just as accurate given that the US Forest Service examined the area and described much of the acreage to be between 25-75% mortality.
- The science is clear that large fires are controlled much more by weather than by fuel. A major point made during the field tour was that fuel moisture was extremely low because of the extended drought in the area this summer.
Check out the somewhat hard to read table from the Forest Service:
The lesson when it comes to forest fires (and cartoons aimed at teenagers) is to take people with a grain of salt when they yell "Fire!"