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Editorial: Rim Fire may have a wide effect on history

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Posted: Saturday, August 31, 2013 12:00 am

The choking ash and orange haze of the Rim Fire will keep thousands of Californians out of the Sierras this Labor Day weekend.

On the other hand, the 200,000-plus-acre blaze may be a turning point. This and other recent “mega-fires” may someday be seen as something more important than destroyers of trees and buildings or drains on the state budget and tourism.

They may prompt new thinking.

Our national forests are an American icon.

For generations, we’ve thought of forest fires as enemies. Government fights fire like an invading army. But the Rim Fire and others in recent years are forcing us to realize that fire is a part of nature. Fighting fires is more than an eternally lost battle, it’s bad for the forest.

The July/August issue of Nature Conservancy magazine carries just one recent re-examination of American forestry practices. The large trees lost in conflagrations like the Rim Fire can survive small, cooler blazes that clear the forest of underbrush and duff — the fallen cones, leaves and branches that pile up if not burned. In the right circumstances, foresters might set fires that increase the vigor of forests.

The Conservancy’s cover story also suggests that government can partner with lumber companies to thin forests in ways that protect them against mega-fires.

This seems so much more promising than the view of Hugh Safford, the U.S. Forest Service “ecologist” who told the Associated Press this week that fire suppression was done to protect “timber interests.” That sort of “industry is the enemy” thinking may one day seem as quaint as the anti-fire thinking that we all shared until recently.

If we spend a little more money on managing forests and a lot less on fighting fires, we might come to a day when both the ecology and the economy are improved.

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