Wildfires have always been a part of the American forest. Some exceptions, especially dry pine and chaparral woodlands, burn more often than others. With the arrival of effective Federal and state forest fire control programs 80 years ago--largely in response to unnatural man-caused burning--fire was effectively removed, or more accurately, delayed from its normal cycles. As a result, forests that were periodically thinned with natural fires have continued to grow. Ind addition to larger trees, they also have dense and very burnable understores of breech and young trees. Now, insect and disease epidemics have killed millions of acres of trees. Today they are tinder dry and ready to burn with ferocious intensity. Sometimes the fires are so hot they kill soil microorganisms.
Add homes and forest subdivisions to increasingly fuel-laden forest and we have the Wild-Urban Interface (WUI). Urban and suburban sprawl, spurred by better roads, more flexible workplace rules, and a rising economy, has occurred at an unprecedented rate. Wildland firefighters now have to consider high value homes and structure when planning their fire control efforts.
Woodland owners have watched in dismay as fire fighters, paid partly with their forestland fire patrol tax assessments, have concentrated on protecting homes while letting woodland burn. Federal fire fighting guides now list priorities: (1) saving lives, (2) saving structures, and, last, (3) saving woodlands.
Only one state--Oregon--has placed woodlands in the number two spot (where NWOA believes they should be) with structures as the number three priority.
Domestic terrorism is now a major concern in the United States. Federal and state agencies are working together to counter the risk to human life and property.
While great progress has been made, the risk of terrorism by wildfire is seriously understated, in NWOA's opinion.
A case in point is the 14 wildfires that comprised the Southern California fire siege of October, 2003. Driven by Santa Ana winds, 750,043 acres were burned and 24 people lost their lives over a two-week period. Some 3,700 homes were destroyed and the damage to watersheds and natural habitats is largely unmeasured. Most of the damage occurred in just five days.
The Southern California example apparently resulted from just 12 fire ignitions, some of them intentional. One can only imagine what would have happened had a team of terrorists waited until the wind conditions were severe, and then placed incendiary materials such as road flares in strategic locations where dense fuels and steep slopes presented attractive targets.
What can we do to prepare for a wildfire terrorist attack and minimize loss of life and property?
1. Plan and locate new homes and developments carefully considering road access, topography and forest cover types (for flammability).
2. Give more attention to early detection of wildfires by reactivation of fire lookouts closed in recent years. The smaller the fire when first reported, the better. This is especially important in suburban areas with fast burning fuels. If funding is not available to restore these services, volunteers from homeowner and landowner groups as well as the Forest Fire Lookout Association are often available.
3. Continue training and expansion of rural volunteer fire departments, especially in areas with history of fire starts and rapid burning.
4. Homeowners can implement firewise projects of clearing flammable materials from structures and utilize flame resistant materials.
5. Forest landowners can implement similar firewise programs with creation of firebreaks and fuel reduction projects within their woodlands.