Commentary: Some wildfires benefit the environment

White River National Forest Supervisor Scott Fitzwilliams.

White River National Forest supervisor discusses management of the Meadow Creek Fire, near Rifle, Colorado

Read a related story on early planning by White River Forest Service experts to use fire as a restoration tool

By Scott Fitzwilliams

The Meadow Creek Fire started on June 26 near the top of a deep canyon on the edge of Clinetop Mesa. At this time it is 1,452 acres, a small figure compared to the ten-year average of 3.5 million acres of U.S. wildlands that burn every year.

The decision to not put firefighters into a steep-walled canyon with fire rolling downhill was an easy decision to make. Viewing the live web-cam made available for viewing the fire answers that inevitable question, “why didn’t you put it out right away.”

Managing wildland fire is a risky business. Responding to nature’s blazes is a complicated endeavor filled with uncertainty. Success happens when preparation meets opportunity.

The Meadow Creek Fire presented an opportunity that as a land manager I feel will prepare us for success. Keep in mind that my utmost consideration was, is and will always be responder and public safety and minimizing the impacts of fire to local communities. Next in importance comes protecting values including facilities and natural resources which could be damaged by fire. Using taxpayer money responsibly is also a priority.

Applying experience, the best science available, hard work and community cooperation gave me confidence in making the decision to limit the Meadow Creek fire’s spread without entirely extinguishing it. The results are long-term benefits to wildlife and to the land itself. Mountain sheep now have better habitat. The decadent debris choked conifer forest is opened up creating room for more diverse and resilient wildlife and plant species.

It would help to clear up what may be misleading when we report fire acreage. The number used reflects the fire perimeter, not how much of the landscape ends up black. What needs to be emphasized is the way the fire burned. We call it a mosaic, where patches of green vegetation stand out like islands in the ocean. This is the successful result we planned for.

For thousands of years before settlers came to Colorado’s mountains plants and animals adapted to fires. I know that smoke from the Meadow Creek fire was thick at times, and we need to continue to find ways to minimize the impacts of smoke to local residents. However, I believe we can allow fires to play a role in the forest ecosystem and keep smoke to a manageable limit. Throughout this fire we have worked closely with Colorado’s Department of Public Health and Environment staff and Garfield County health officials.

One thing I would like to see from this fire is the opening of dialogue on large-scale collaborative forest restoration. A century of fire suppression combined with drought and insect epidemics have left our forests in an unhealthy condition, accumulating an unnatural build-up of fuels. During periods of extensive drought this could pose serious threats to communities. A good example of this condition is the bark beetle epidemic.

If we are to take meaningful and lasting action to improve the condition of our forests we must be willing to use fire and use it on a much larger scale than we have in the past. Risk is inherent in doing this to restore the forest.

Our land management agencies can’t do the hard work ahead without public involvement and understanding of our dilemma and a willingness to be open to a new direction in both fire policy and forest restoration.

It’s a journey I hope you will take with me. The risks inherent in this opportunity to make a difference that will last beyond our lifetime are risks I accept.

Related stories:

Fighting Fire with Fire

Report says more fire needed in Western landscapes

Prescribed fire as a global warming tool?

Scott Fitzwilliams is the Forest Supervisor on the White River National Forest in Glenwood Springs, Colorado. Before coming to the White River National Forest, Scott served as the Deputy Forest Supervisor for the Willamette National Forest in Eugene, Oregon starting in February of 2006. Prior to moving to Oregon, Scott worked five years as the Recreation, Lands and Minerals Staff Officer on the 17 million acre Tongass National Forest in Sitka, Alaska. Scott was District Ranger on the Little Missouri National Grassland in Dickinson, North Dakota from 1998-2001. Prior to being a District Ranger, Scott worked on the Bridger-Teton National Forest in Jackson Hole, Wyoming as the Public Affairs Officer and Acting Jackson District Ranger. Scott started his Forest Service career in the Rocky Mountain Region where he worked as an intern in the Regional Office in Lakewood, Colorado.

Scott has a Bachelors Degree in Political Science from the University of Wisconsin and Masters Degree in Environmental Planning and Policy from the University of Colorado at Denver.

Scott was born and raised in Wisconsin and is spends his free time doing a variety of outdoor activities including camping, hiking, skiing, fishing hunting and coaching kids sports. Scott and his wife Lisa have a seven-year-old son, Sam.


3 thoughts on “Commentary: Some wildfires benefit the environment

  1. Fire is a very necessary forest management tool and we have made a grave mistake in supressing too many fires and not burning as Scott states in a controlled burn fashion.
    I have been providing beetle kill wood products while studying the issues, and the few opportunities that exist, regarding the beetlekill epidemic for many years now. If we act very soon and in a relatively massive scale, preferably before a major uncontrollable fire hits, then we can reduce the cost of the forest devastation through a number of actions.
    Over 50 million acres of forest are dead in N. America, with another 22-32 million anticipated in the next 10-20 years. Some studies have indicated that we are at a ‘tipping point’ of our forests off-putting more carbon than they absorb – at a time when few will disagree that this is not a good thing.
    More immediate is the threat to our very communities, our water supplies, our electrical and communications grids, our roadways and trails, our property values, impacts to wildlife and eco-systems which will affect our tourism and outdoor recreation industries, and yes in the case of fire, undoubtably some of our lives.
    Education and awareness as to the enormous scope and impacts of this epidemic is crucial to taking the big, immediate and proactive steps necessary to clean up, protect our infrastructure, implement controlled burns, and assist in reforestation and replanting in critical areas, or we will look back and wonder why we didn’t act sooner.

  2. Bravo Mr. Fitzwilliams!

    These are most heartening words, and actions. this is the leadership we have needed for generations at the Forest Service! Our forests are sick because of our mistaken policy of preventing all fires at all times; fire is Nature’s best and fastest way to return our forests to health. We need New Trees in our forests, and that will end the pine-beetle and other blights our geriatric forests are suffering from today.

    Hopefully professionals like Scott can work with our communities to prevent a conflagration the likes of which has not been seen in recored history. There are already nearly 4 million acres of dead trees in Colorado alone; another 15 million acres of dead trees can be found throughout the US west. It is only going to get worse. Drought compounds the problem.

    Mr. Fitzwilliams, and in deed the entire Forest Service are caught in a conundrum. Our innate pyrophobia – or fear of fire – has us suppressing fires regardless of how badly the fire can be needed. Our century++ of very active fire suppression goes back farther in some areas, often to when the Europeans first landed in an area – this pattern follows as settlers push from the east coast to the west.

    During this time, our fear of fire was though of as God’s work – but all it was doing was slowly pushing our forests into ill health. As Scott points out, fire is healthy, and is Nature’s preferred tool since the beginning of time to keep the forest healthy. And not just the trees – but all the other plants and animals as well. Everyone benefits when the old is cleared out and new young growth is allowed to take its place.

    Pine trees are living things. They are not rocks. They are not meant to live forever without Nature replacing them. Like people – all living things have a finite natural life span. Our forests have exceeded theirs, and health won’t return until New Trees return with the health that defines a new, younger generation.

    We are the cause of our Forests’ ill health with our irrational absolute fear of fire. Our Zero Tolerance of any fire has worked all too well. And hearing we now have Forest Service leadership that recognizes this is welcome news.

    Our failed policy has killed resulted in nearly 18 Million Acres of Dead Standing Trees! And it is getting worse by the day. So many dead trees are still standing, that estimates are over 100,000 standing dead trees are falling throughout the Western US – and it will get worse before it gets better!

    Thank you Mr. Fitzwilliams for realizing we need fire to turn our forests back from mausoleums into living, breathing land filled with New Trees and young healthy growth.

    Scott’s words are those of the new generation of Forest Service leaders who can lead the way – not just by allowing these carefully watched fires to do as Nature intends and replace the old – but actively working for renewal of our Natural Forests and Lands.

    Scott must receive particular praise for two ideas he mentions here: 1) The willingness to use fire as Nature’s primary organic tool for renewal, and 2) to begin the dialogue helping communities understand that either through fire or harvest and replanting the future must allow reforestation, which is good for all animals and other species of plants – but particularly for humans who love the outdoors and Nature.

    Leadership has been needed for decades – thanks for the courage to provide it. All who love the forest wish you well in your educated pursuit of finding that best path – not just for fire – but working with our communities to correct centuries of neglect and wrong-headed policies. Together we can start make these corrections before the West becomes a funeral pyre. Together, we can return the forest to health, and the grandchildren of our grandchildren will thank us.

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