The Case for Burning
Air Date: Week of May 19, 2000
The disaster of the prescribed burn in New Mexico throws doubt on this forest management technique. Host Steve Curwood speaks with Keith Easthouse of Forest Magazine, who says prescribed burns are still the best defense against forest fires.
CURWOOD: This is Living on Earth. I'm Steve Curwood.
A prescribed burn in New Mexico’s Bandelier National Monument erupted into what it was designed to prevent – an out of control wildfire. Eighty square miles of forest were scorched, more than 400 homes destroyed and the Los Alamos National Laboratory Investigators says lack of oversight and insufficient personnel are key reasons why the fire got out of control.
But Interior Secretary Bruce Babbitt lays some of the blame on government policy which has turned forests into tinderboxes.
BABBITT: They are too thick, too cluttered with young growth pines, they are reflecting the legacy of a long history of fire supression in forests which co-evolved with fire.
CURWOOD: Secretary Babbitt has imposed a thirty day ban on prescribed burns. Keith Easthouse is following the story for Forest Magazine. Keith, do conditions warrant a moratorium
EASTHOUSE: It was a political and I, you know, frankly, think that it’s understandable. But I think it should be lifted as soon as it’s clear how they’re going to be conducting burning in the future and as soon as the public can have some strong assurances that another disaster like Cerro Grande’s not going to happen again.
CURWOOD: If the secretary wanted to stop burning, could he?
EASTHOUSE: I guess he could, but you know, if we don’t burn these forests mother nature will. As the Interior Secretary said, these forests co-evolved with fire and after about a century of fire suppression, Smokey Bear has created a real mess, you know, that we need to deal with. These forests are explosive, they’re tinder dry, they intrude right into a lot of cities, such as Santa Fe – I don’t think we have any choice.
CURWOOD: The secretary says thin first, then burn. That should work?
EASTHOUSE: It is what needs to be done, but there’s a problem with it and the problem is everything that becomes a sapling grows into a tree in the absence of fire. And so you’ve got trees packed like sardines, trees competing for moisture and nutrients, and you’ve got stunted trees. One reason that land management agencies haven’t made a whole lot of progress in terms of thinning is that there’s no market for the trees.
CURWOOD: I’m looking at an article from Forest Magazine last fall, written by you, Keith Easthouse…
CURWOOD: And in this article you warn that the Los Alamos National Lab is vulnerable to a wildfire from a couple of different directions. Boy, what’s happened must feel pretty eerie to you, I’d imagine.
EASTHOUSE: Yeah, it’s kind of bizarre. I was out walking in the woods that are now, you know, charred, with a guy from the Santa Fe National Forest, Bill Armstrong, almost a year to the day that the Cerro Grande fire got out of control. It’s strange, but on another level I’m not at all surprised. Bill is one of the few people at the Santa Fe National Forest who has recognized the danger and has been trying for several years now to get adequate funding to thin and burn the area that blew up in the Cerro Grande blaze. And unfortunately Bill just never got the support he needed.
CURWOOD: So I’m wondering who the real culprits are here. The folks who failed to fund the prescribed burns that were being called for by the foresters who had seen this problem and gave you the material for your article? The people who did the prescribed burn in an ineffective way? Who’s to blame? Is there anyone to blame?
EASTHOUSE: Obviously the park service and the people who actually carried out the controlled burn made mistakes and they were mistakes with disastrous consequences. But again the Santa Fe National Forest, had it had an aggressive thinning and burning program going on for 10, 15, 20 years, this blaze may not have burned into Los Alamos. Let me also add that Los Alamos Lab and the Department of Energy need to shoulder some blame here as well. The laboratory is about ten years behind on its environmental cleanup program. And as a result, there’s a real possibility since apparently about 25% of the lab burned, that a witch’s brew of radioactive and chemical contaminants escaped into the atmosphere.
CURWOOD: OK, the fire is eventually over. Is the risk going to be gone from the Los Alamos area?
EASTHOUSE: No, I’m afraid the northern New Mexico community, or region, is going to be taking a one-two punch here. The first punch of course was the fire itself. The second punch is flooding. The fire burned so hot, 20,000 degrees I’ve heard, that the soil actually was vitrified and turned to glass in places. Even where that didn’t happen, there’s a thick, thick layer of ash that’s water repellant. And when the monsoons hit New Mexico, and they will, they usually come around the Fourth of July, there could be enormous flash flooding washing down out of the mountains and crossing Los Alamos National Laboratory. Now that’s significant because for almost 60 years, beginning with the Manhattan Project, the Laboratory has used the canyons on its property as dumping grounds. Barring some kind of last minute, eleventh hour effort at constructing barriers, that stuff is going to get dislodged and transported directly into the Rio Grande.
CURWOOD: Keith Easthouse is associate editor at Forest Magazine. Thanks for talking with us today.
EASTHOUSE: OK, thank you.
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