By TIM HEARDEN
REDDING, Calif. - Federal fire officials gave a spirited defense of their sometimes controversial decisions to let some wildfires burn through timberland in rural areas.
Conducting prescribed burns or managing - but not actively suppressing - naturally ignited fires that aren't an immediate threat to homes or communities can improve the long-term health of forests, the officials told more than 50 attendees of a March 19 symposium here.
Wildland fire can be used for human benefit just as we use water and other forest resources, and people should weigh the consequences of using fire against those of doing nothing, said Arlen Cravens, a fire management officer for the Shasta-Trinity National Forest.
"Are we willing to support some managed fire and unwanted smoke rather than leave it to some unmanaged fire in the future?" Cravens said.
Further, fire may be the only tool available for reducing fuel loads in areas where the terrain prevents other treatments, said Carl Skinner, a research geographer at the U.S. Forest Service's Pacific Southwest Research Station in Albany, Calif.
"We're never going to get to it all with treatments because of the nature of some of this landscape," Skinner said.
Their comments came during an all-day workshop that also featured representatives from the National Park Service, the California Department of Forestry and Fire Protection, the University of California-Davis and other entities.
The symposium was sponsored by the California Fire Science Consortium and the UC Cooperative Extension, which was slated to hold a similar event March 21 at Humboldt State University.
The seminars come amid reports that Forest Service Chief Tom Tidwell indicated late last month the agency is altering its approach and may let more fires burn instead of attacking every one. The Forest Service came in $400 million over budget after last year's busy fire season.
The change brings the Forest Service more in line with the National Park Service while answering critics who said the agency wasted money and endangered firefighters by battling fires in remote areas that posed little or no danger to property or critical habitat.
However, two California congressmen blasted the National Park Service last year for letting the Reading Fire burn in extreme summer conditions. In the end, the 42-square-mile blaze destroyed private property, hurt the region's logging industry and devastated prime tourism destinations.
Growers complained that valley smoke from the Reading and other fires presented a hazard for workers, hampered the development of trees and plants, caused respiratory problems in animals and dissuaded bees from working.
"What the Forest Service experienced last year was a huge increase in costs because they let fires burn" in places like Colorado and New Mexico, asserted Roger Jaegel, a former Trinity County supervisor who is leading an effort to improve forest management.
"The cost of fire is going to be much greater, and so is the economic cost and ecological damage," Jaegel said in an interview.
Cravens acknowledged that "we have had some very bad outcomes" from prescribed and managed fires, but they are minimal compared to the number of successful burns, he said.
"We are going to have failures if we're going to learn," he said.
California Fire Science Consortium: http://www.cafiresci.org/