It's no secret that there have been an extraordinary number of fires in the United States this year. The number tops 75,000 and is still growing. More than 6.6 million acres of land — an area roughly the size of Massachusetts — have been engulfed in flames at one time or another. Tens of thousands of firefighters have battled the flames and a few, tragically, have lost their lives.
What made the summer of 2000 such a historic one for fires? First, the weather has been hotter than normal in many of the affected areas. Second, parts of the South and West have been abnormally dry, with ongoing long-term droughts. And third, ground litter and forest underbrush have proliferated to such an extent in some forests that when fires hit, they're soon out of control.
The fact, though, is that fires have been and will continue to be a healthy thing for both grasslands and forests. In natural conditions, fires burn away tree and shrub seedlings on prairies and other open grasslands. In woodlands and large forests, periodic fires keep sapling trees and shrubs from overcrowding the understory and thereby fueling major conflagrations. Fires also release necessary minerals into the soil, open the cones on Lodgepole Pines, Giant Sequoias, and several other evergreens, and generally promote good health to the environment.
When discussing fires, it's important to differentiate between the three basic types: ground, surface, and crown. Ground fires are low-level affairs that burn away accumulated ground litter. They have little effect on forest trees. Likewise, surface fires, which burn litter, saplings, and seedlings, do little damage to healthy mature trees, even though they may blacken the trunks of some. The bad fires — and there were too many of these in the United States this summer — are crown fires, which roar through forests, feeding both on dense understory plants and on mature trees. Crown fires are catastrophic for everyone and everything associated with them, since they leave nothing alive in their wake.
President Clinton has stated that he will ask Congress to appropriate up to $1.6 billion to create a national program for thinning out much of the understory in those western forests now clogged with brush and small trees. More than money, though, the program needs the cooperation of foresters, conservationists, and the general public to succeed. Based on the disastrous summer of 2000, the incentives are most definitely there.