WILDFIRES

What Smokey Bear might have learned if he had been raised in Indian Country

On Memorial Day weekend in 2011, an unattended campfire in Bear Wallow Wilderness sparked a small brush fire that quickly turned into a holocaust, burning through 538,000 acres and destroying 32 homes in the process. It cost taxpayers more than $79 million to suppress. The Wallow fire was the largest fire in Arizona history, with almost 6,000 people evacuated during the weeks it burned.

The San Carlos Apache Indian Reservation, just to the west of where the fire started, was hardly touched.

Therein lies a story that American Indians can take pride in and U.S. firefighters and their cash-strapped agencies, entering what is expected to be one of the worst fire seasons in U.S. history, can learn much from.

When the reservation was established in southeastern Arizona in 1872, it was known as "Hell's Forty Acres" due to the region's unforgiving heat. Almost 140 years later, though, it was one of the few patches of forest in the region that the flames skipped. It was not magic that saved it, but years of preparation.

Tribes have been minimizing the chances of wildfires on tribal lands for centuries, adhering to traditional seasonal fire prevention systems of doing prescribed burns, removing hazardous fuels and thinning forests. The practices helped clear the sightlines on hunting grounds and protected the timber for heat, fuel and trading. The approach is part of an extensive collection of generational knowledge used to manage forests and wildfires described as traditional fire knowledge.

The Apache response to the Wallow fire was a "dramatic example of the effectiveness of Indian forest thinning," according to a 2013 report commissioned by the federal government.

Wildfires spread most quickly by climbing up brush, which can elevate fire to the more flammable crowns of trees. From there, the tornadolike winds created by enlarging fires can carry flaming embers for miles. "When the fire hit the Indian fire line and thousands of acres that been previously treated to reduce fuel loads, it dropped to the ground," the report continued.

Due to an exceptionally dry winter, in places like Southern California the 2013 fire season never really ended (ClimateWire, May 12). And as the wildfires burning forestland around San Diego showed last week, the continuing drought can have a cumulative effect, making wildfires easier to start and quicker to spread.

Opportunity for arson in San Diego County?

As crews mopped up the last of the major fires that ripped through San Diego County, Calif., last week, Gov. Jerry Brown (D) said his state was preparing for its worst fire season ever, citing climate change as a major factor.

"The state's climate appears to be changing," he said, speaking on ABC's "This Week." "The scientists tell us that definitely. So we've got to gear up here. ... We have more structures, more activists, more combustible activity, and we've got to gear up for it, and as the climate changes, this is going to be a radically different future than was our historic past."

Brown said that his government has already appropriated $600 million to cope with the 2014 fire season and said that although 5,000 firefighters were standing by, thousands more would likely be needed.

While Washington and Congress may remain divided on the question of climate change, "We here in California are on the front lines," he said.

As many as 10 fires roared through San Diego County, forcing tens of thousands of evacuations and at least one fatality. The fires, which had affected more than 39 square miles as of Sunday evening, damaged a number of structures in the suburbs of San Marcos and Carlsbad, including 47 houses, three businesses and an apartment complex.

A report by private forecaster AccuWeather Inc. put the total cost of damages at $22.5 million.

Three people have so far been arrested in connection with two of the smaller fires. Police picked up two teenagers after witnesses saw them starting brush fires in the Escondido area of San Diego. A 57-year-old man, Alberto Serrato, has been charged with feeding brush to existing fires in the suburb of Oceanside.

The causes of the larger fires remain under investigation.

Whatever the source of the original spark, the fires were quickly exacerbated by irregular Santa Ana winds and the tinder-dry fuel conditions affecting most of the state. A handful of blazes that sprang up midweek had grown to nine major fires by Thursday morning, when the winds finally shifted, giving firefighters a slight advantage.

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Like watching money burn

Thinning forests by using controlled burns to remove brush has traditionally helped Indian tribes reduce the damage from the natural cycle of forest fires, but recent tribal funding woes have stretched resources, threatening to reduce preventive measures just as record droughts have begun to plague the West.

Some native foresters are performing three jobs at once, so they can't treat all the land they need to, and most tribal resources are often devoted to other pressing social needs like health care, employment and law enforcement. More than half the population of the San Carlos reservation lives below the poverty line, according to the 2000 census.

Still, the 2013 government report found that tribal forest managers were outperforming their federal counterparts with barely one-third the funding (E&E Daily, April 11).

Federal policy until the mid-20th century viewed any and all fire as hazardous and threatening -- epitomized by the anti-fire park mascot Smokey Bear -- but progress in updating this philosophy has been slow. The National Environmental Policy Act calls for specific acreages in parks to be burned, but targets are rarely met (Greenwire, Sept. 13, 2013).

Native tribes have been trying to revive an approach that conforms to their older traditions, but results have been mixed across the western United States.

"There are limited budgets and a limited amount of people," said Phil Rigdon, president of the Intertribal Timber Council (ITC). "I just don't think there's as much activity happening as there should be."

Some tribes lack the equipment to treat all the necessary acres, while some lack enough money to pay fire treatment teams or replace their rapidly aging forestry workforce (51 percent of Indian foresters are 50 years or older, according to the 2013 report). The expertise is getting thin on the ground.

Rigdon, for example, is also natural resource deputy director for the Yakama Nation in southwest Washington state. Eleven people have retired recently from his tribe's forestry department, and so far none have been replaced.

And as more wood burns instead of being harvested, tribes lose valuable revenue and jobs. Some tribal forest managers have compared reservation forest fires to watching money burn.

'Tribes provide the most hopeful example'

Under congressional mandate, the ITC carried out three assessments of tribal forest management, known as IFMAT reports. They were conducted in 1993, 2003 and 2013. Each report found that funding for tribal forest management was proportionately lower than for its federal counterparts, and the gulf has continued to widen.

Indian forestry staff has declined 13 percent since 1991, and timber revenues are down 64 percent. There are now four operational Indian sawmills in the country, according to the latest IFMAT report. Ten Indian sawmills have closed since 2001.

Meanwhile, federal investment in battling wildfires has increased -- creating a precarious budget situation where federal agencies have been paying for the suppression of large fires with funds "borrowed" from fire prevention activities like hazardous fuels management (E&E Daily, May 13).

Larry Mason, a retired forest resources scientist at the University of Washington and a co-author on all three IFMAT reports, said this funding imbalance is exacerbating the damage -- to forests, homes and businesses, as well as federal budgets -- caused by wildfires.

"In the U.S. at this point, I think, tribes provide the most hopeful example for how we move more towards sustainable utilization and protection of [forest] resources," Mason said.

Some native communities are beginning to build these relationships. The ITC has a formal "Anchor Forest" initiative underway, a commercial enterprise partnering some reservations in eastern Washington state with neighboring government agencies to coordinate forest management activities that both protect the natural environment and increase timber revenue. The organization has also been leading an investigation on how to integrate traditional tribal knowledge with Western scientific knowledge.

'Blueprint' needs support

More than 18 million acres of American Indian forests is held in trust by the federal government with most management responsibility falling to the Forest Service and the Bureau of Indian Affairs. The BIA budgets roughly $75 million per year for fire suppression, and from 2003 to 2013, the agency treated an average of 31,430 acres of tribal land every year.

At a Senate Indian Affairs Committee hearing on wildland fire management earlier this month, BIA Assistant Secretary Kevin Washburn said that the agency's forestry program initiatives for fiscal 2014 also include "additional support to tribes to maintain productive levels of forest management."

James Hubbard, deputy chief for state and private forestry at the Forest Service, testified at the same hearing that the ITC Anchor Forest initiative, and tribal traditional knowledge as a whole, is "something we need to pay attention to."

Many forests in the West are "ready to burn," he added, and said that although the Forest Service supports the preventive measures tribes are taking, like prescribed burns, limited resources mean the agency will have to be "more selective in choosing our priorities for where we can actually effect that outcome."

"We have to pick our places and pick our priorities and make the right kind of choices together," he added.

Tribes have been adapting to climate change for centuries, in part by strategically burning forests to facilitate biological diversity and wildlife movement and prevent catastrophic wildfires. Photographs from the Confederated Salish and Kootenai Tribes in Montana track how government anti-fire policies have changed the landscape and blanketed open plains and mountains with vegetation.

But in Indian Country -- where extreme poverty and heavy demand on health services, infrastructure and law enforcement drain resources -- efforts to resurrect traditional fire management methods are in danger of withering away before they get started.

The climate has rarely changed this much this quickly, even in the long memories of tribal history. Yet many believe tribes could provide a better blueprint for how to manage this period of rapid and sometimes dangerous change.

"Really, what we're trying to move to is how to bring back the values of what was there, the open pine forest that could handle and let fire burn through," Rigdon said.

Twitter: @henrygass | Email: hgass@eenews.net

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