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Fire on the Mountain

Misguided environmentalists may be the greatest threat to America's forests.

12:00 AM, May 25, 2006 • By JAMES THAYER
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The Imperial Japanese Navy tried to burn down Oregon. It failed. Sixty years later, radical environmentalists almost succeeded.

The Los Angeles Times' banner headline read "REPORT OREGON BOMBING. Jap Aircraft Carrier Believed Sunk." It was September 15, 1942. A seaplane had been spotted near Mt. Emily, Oregon, nine miles north of Brookings. A forest fire had been started near the mountain. Harold Gardner, a forest service lookout, rushed to the area and quickly extinguished the flames.

Then a forest service patrol found a foot-deep crater. Nearby were forty pounds of spongy pellets and metal fragments, some of which were stamped with Japanese ideograms. A metal nosecone was also found.

That same day a Japanese submarine was sited in the Pacific thirty miles off the Oregon coast due west of Mt. Emily. An Army patrol plane bombed the sub, but results of the bombing were unknown.

Less than a year after Pearl Harbor, the Japanese had set out to strike a blow against the American mainland, but they failed to cause a massive fire in the dry Oregon forest.

Fast forward sixty years to July 13, 2002. An Oregon Department of Forestry pilot spotted a rising column of black smoke near Chetco Peak, not far from where the Japanese bomb had landed. The pilot immediately reported it to the dispatcher at Grants Pass. This fire would be named Biscuit 1.

Thirty minutes later a California Department of Forestry pilot, who was directing fire fighting efforts at Six Rivers National Forest, saw a new column of smoke to the north, up in Oregon. He called in the fire to the Fortuna dispatch center. This blaze would be named the Carter Fire. A lightening storm was passing over southwest Oregon. Within thirty minutes the pilot would spot three more fires. Over the next two days, lightening would ignite hundreds more fires in the Siskiyou forest.

The fires merged and spread into a vast conflagration that became known as the Biscuit Fire. It burned for the next five and a half months, destroying half a million acres of forest--60 miles north-to-south at its longest, and 35 miles east-to-west--causing $150 million in damage. The fire was not extinguished until New Year's Eve.

The Biscuit Fire was only one of many that season, such as the Rodeo-Chediski Fire in east-central Arizona (467,000 acres), and the Hayman Fire southwest of Denver (135,000 acres, 133 homes destroyed, 5,300 people evacuated). During the summer and fall of 2002, 88,000 wildfires charred seven million acres, an area the size of Massachusetts. More than 800 structures were destroyed. Fire fighting efforts cost $1.7 billion in addition to the lives of twenty-three firefighters.

The calamity prompted the Bush administration and Congress to act about as quickly as Washington ever does. In August, while the fires were still burning, the president proposed his Healthy Forests Initiative, which Congress soon passed as the Healthy Forest Restoration Act. The president signed it into law on December 3, 2003.

Agitation by extremists within the environmental movement had produced decades of misguided attempts at forest management. The new law will make our forests less susceptible to catastrophic fires. But because the remedy involves a concept that is anathema to extreme enviros--logging--they oppose it, and are actively working to maintain our forests as tinderboxes.

A hundred years ago, each acre of a ponderosa pine forest contained about 25 mature trees. A horse-drawn wagon could be driven through the forest without the aid of a road. Ponderosa pine is intolerant of shade, and the trees grow aggressively toward the sun, throwing shadows that discourage growth below. Today that same forest might have 1,000 trees per acre. Usually these are Douglas firs, which prosper in shade, and which grow in thick stands, often so dense that a hiker cannot pass between the trunks.

As a result of this fuel load (Forest Service terminology), forest fires today are entirely unlike those of a century ago. They are hotter, faster, and more destructive. Today, 190 million acres of public forests are at an elevated risk of fires, and twenty-four million acres are at the highest risk of catastrophic fire.

What happened to the forests? Why did they degrade? Two main reasons: the suppression of small fires that destroy weak trees and underbrush and that create fire breaks, and a lack of thinning. Which is to say, logging. The failure to cull the forests has left them little more than kindling.