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Wildfire management goes high tech

May 17, 1999
Web posted at: 2:30 PM EDT

Wildfire management has gone high tech. The National Fire Danger Rating System posts daily fire warnings based on daily observations relayed by 1,500 weather stations across the United States   

Fire season is once again upon us in the Northern Hemisphere, and while wildfires may be older than man, managing them in the 20th century has evolved into a science. And you can see it all posted on the Internet.

The resources of the Forest Service, the Department of Interior, the National Weather Service and numerous other agencies have been pooled to create a high tech approach to wildfire management.

The National Fire Danger Rating System predicts fire danger every day based on daily observations relayed by 1,500 weather stations across the country. Forest mangers report on wind, temperatures, precipitation and snow pack levels, and quantify the type and amount of fire fuel on the ground, broadly covering grass, timber, brush and slash.

Once a fire has started, whether by man or nature and intentionally or not, fire management resources now include hotshot crews, rappellers and helitack units, smokejumpers, small lead planes that guide giant airtankers, helicopters and small single-engine air tankers. At full-scale mobilization, the Forest Service can have more than 22,000 people managing a fire, which today doesn't necessarily mean putting it out.

"Cool fires" will be lit this fire season to purge highly combustible fuel loads in forests and grasslands   

The United States has come a long way since the early part of this decade when the U.S. policy toward wildfires was aggressive suppression, a policy that is being revised this year. The total wildfire suppression policy resulted from the Peshtigo fire, which in 1871 burned more than 3.5 million acres across Michigan and Wisconsin and killed 1,500 people, and fires in 1910 that claimed the lives of 80 firefighters and torched 3 million acres in Idaho and Montana.

Decades of suppression led to wildfires that became progressively bigger, more catastrophic and more expensive. Around 100,000 fires burn nearly 4 million acres each year. The cost to federal agencies to fight these fires runs more than $400 million each year, with costs of $1 million a day possible. Ecosystems that are dependent on fire have suffered tremendously.

Two events led scientists to revisit the policy. The tragedy of the 1994 Storm King Mountain fire in Colorado, in which 14 firefighters died, was the direct result of highly combustible, tinder box conditions that occurred because of fire suppression. The Yellowstone fire in 1988 showed scientists that ecosystems can and do benefit tremendously from fire, regenerating themselves, improving forest health, increasing resistance to insects and disease, and maintaining diversity in trees and plants.

The new policy for managing fire on public lands is controversial. In addition to the massive influx of technology being brought to bear on predicting forest conditions, "cool fires" will be lit this fire season to purge highly combustible fuel loads in forests and grasslands. Many fires will be allowed to run their course, returning the land to conditions under which it thrived for millions of years.

As of May 10, 34,087 wildfires have burned 639,674 acres this year. Last year at this same time, 17,570 fires had burned 289,509 acres. Today, extreme fire conditions are being reported from New Mexico and Texas. The Great Lake States, the Southeast and the Southwest remain areas of concern.

Copyright 1999, Environmental News Network, All Rights Reserved

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