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Forestry expert: 'Mixed bag' managing wildfires

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  • Firefighting technology has improved
  • Fire important part of forest ecology
  • Forest flammability has increased
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(CNN) -- Much as wildfires spread, so has the knowledge of their causes, role in shaping the landscape, and the methods used to control them, especially in developed areas.

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Omi fought wildfires for four years before becoming professor of forest fire science at Colorado State.

Phil Omi, a former firefighter and professor of forest science at Colorado State University for the past 28 years, shared his expertise about wildfires and the challenges that face professional foresters, firefighters and the general public.

PHIL OMI: Some things ... have changed in the last few decades. The way [national agencies] manage forests is more enlightened, regarding the ecological impact. On the other hand, we're fooling ourselves if we believe that we have had that much of an impact in terms of controlling costs and losses from wildfires.

The technologies have much improved, in terms of computer tools and capabilities. But in terms of on-the-ground implementation of astute management practices, there have been some bottlenecks due to politics, environmental concerns and other issues ... It has been a mixed bag.

CNN: What role have wildfires played historically?

OMI: For thousands of years, fires have been burning through much of the Western forests. There's growing evidence for an active role of wildfires in the Eastern forests as well, but a lot of that evidence has disappeared with development.

Fire ... has shaped the structure of forests and the processes that go on in the wilderness, as well as the interaction between plants, diseases, insects and other organisms. Fires had a major role ... in terms of shaping the typical forests we see today.

CNN: What impact have efforts against wildfires had?

OMI: Attempts to control fire in the last 100 years have had a definite impact, especially in the lower-elevation forests like the ponderosa pine ecosystems of the Southwest ...

The flammability of the forest has increased in some areas so that, in particular forest types, we now have crown fires. The accumulation of surface fuels, changes in species composition and density of shade tolerance have all led to an increase in major fires.

The overall result is that, when a fire breaks out in those forests, it no longer is that low-intensity type of fire that used to clear out some understory of brush.

CNN: How do you tell people that wildfires can be part of the natural process, better left untouched?

OMI: That's a real challenge. It's not only [convincing] homeowners, but it's also the policy of public agencies ... to press all the buttons, ever since 1935. That year was a real turning point in land management [policy], with the institution of the 10 a.m. policy that mandates throwing as much as you could at a fire in order to suppress it by 10 a.m. the next day. That policy was ... intended to subdue this menace that people regarded [fire] as.

Now we recognize, with the benefit of hindsight and research, that perhaps that policy was misguided in terms of its consequences on the forest system.

CNN: Have wildfires, nationally, gotten worse in recent years?

OMI: It's a difficult call because fires are driven by weather, along with fuel and topography. It seems, if you look at the statistics, that forest fire incidents and the area burned is on the increase in some areas. But it may be as much due to climate [as] to what humans have done. ...

Whenever the weather got hotter and dryer, we had big fires. It's hard to say the recent spate of damaging fires ... has been caused by anything other than weather and climate change. It's sometimes all too easy to point the finger at human activity. But it's very complex, given the weather patterns that are predominant.

CNN: How are most wildfires caused?

OMI: It's geographically dependent. So you'll have areas like Southern California, where humans cause 95 percent of wildfires. In the Southern United States, you have a large arson problem. In the Rocky Mountains and Florida, you have a high incidence of wildfires caused by lightning. It depends on where you're talking about and the preceding weather.

CNN: How are wildfires fought?

OMI: When you have a major blaze, management of that incident becomes like a paramilitary organization. You have a chain of command that links the incident commander, who makes decisions regarding how the fire is managed [on the ground], with a staff that keeps track of finances and develops plans for managing the incident, logistics and those kinds of activities that have to be coordinated.

In between, you have air tankers carrying pink-colored fire retardant, and helicopters that carry retardant in lesser volumes. They also can ferry men and women to the scene of fires. You've got the smoke jumpers [and] elite "hot shot" crews. You've got other crews that are put together, often consisting of forestry workers that are on-call for a wildfire.

The incident management team assesses the situation and decides whether or not additional personnel are needed. If so, they will put in a request to regional or national coordinating teams, who will assess the availability of firefighting resources. So it's a fairly complex endeavor, and also sometimes a fairly lucrative one for some contractors. It is also a dangerous one at times. E-mail to a friend E-mail to a friend

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