West governors 'kick off' wildfire season

June 16, 2003 at 7:53 PM
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MISSOULA, Mont., June 16 (UPI) -- The determined give-and-take in Washington over President Bush's Healthy Forest Initiative is far from complete, giving the governors of the states in the drought-stricken West ample reason to be nervous about another potentially disastrous fire season.

The Western Governors Association will hold a summit this week in Montana on the topic of forest health, which has become a euphemism for the contentious issue of finding a balance between the use and preservation of the vast mountain forests where some 7 million acres burned last summer.

"Last year was one of the worst fire seasons on record for several of our states," said Montana Gov. Judy Martz, the chairwoman of the WGA. "The continuing drought almost guarantees that 2003 will be another record year."

The primary objective of the summit in Missoula, according to the WGA, will be to compare notes on fire-prevention strategies in order to minimize the number of times the governors will have to tour a once-bucolic neighborhood that had been overwhelmed by an inferno caused by a lightning strike or a careless campfire in heavily overgrown woodlands.

The summit will include an appearance by Dale Bosworth, head of the U.S. Forest Service, and a field trip into the woods where the latest in heavy equipment will demonstrate how -- someday -- the cost of fuels reduction will be lowered to the point that scrub trees and other such kindling can be economically harvested for processing into biofuel, wood pulp or some other commercial purpose.

"We need to know what collaborative efforts are working, what the latest science is and what assistance is available," said Martz.

The session won't have any direct impact on the Healthy Forest Initiative, which is a federal matter, but it will serve as a kind of unofficial kickoff to the wildfire season in which the governors and high-ranking federal officials will be able to shake hands and agree that fuel reductions conducted in an environmentally sensitive manner are a desirable goal.

The governors took that same uncontroversial stand a couple of years ago in the form of a 10-year strategy to gradually restore millions of acres of overgrown woods to their more natural state by hacking out the small trees and underbrush that act both as "ladder fuels" and stunt the health of larger trees by competing for sunlight, soil nutrients and scarce water.

"Under the WGA's leadership, we have made tremendous strides in getting federal, state and local interests working together, and this meeting will give us a chance to compare notes and, if necessary, fine-tune the implementation of the 10-year fire strategy," said Idaho Gov. Dirk Kempthorne.

The Healthy Forest Initiative, which borrowed heavily from the WGA's strategy, passed in the House last month and sent on to the Senate. At the same time, the Bush administration has proposed a handoff of the equally sticky debate over roadless wilderness areas to the governors -- giving them the power to seek exemptions to the rules in order to build fire roads.

Like Healthy Forest Initiative, the roadless regulations haven't yet become the law of the land, so the 2003 fire season will probably look about the same as the epic summer of 2002, when huge fires blackened vast areas in northern Arizona, California's Sierra. Colorado and southern Oregon.

"Late spring rains allowed us to delay the start of fire season this year, however, the grass is now drying and we are starting to see an increase in fire activity," said Jim Wright, the Chief of Fire Protection for the California Department of Forestry.

And with dry weather comes fires, and it is more often than not the governor who has to make the symbolic tour of charred streets and offer their sympathies to the homeowners who lived too close to a fire-prone forest.

(Reported by Hil Anderson in Los Angeles)

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