Americans are famous for ignoring good advice, such as don't get involved in a ground war in Asia, don't cheat on your accounting and, especially, don't tune your guitar when you've been drinking. All sound thinking, and all ignored at our peril at one time or another.
Then there is advice that sounded good at the time, but turns out to have been misguided -- as in "Only you can prevent forest fires." Who would have thought Smokey Bear would have to turn in his broad-brimmed ranger hat for the villain's mantle?
For the last 150 years in the American West, the battle cry has been to put out every fire wherever it occurs. This effort at fire suppression has been pretty successful. It has allowed a kind of urban creep into the wilds, so that all along in the Rockies, and in the mountains of California and Oregon, new homes and second homes and vacation resorts were built where they might not have been built before.
Not little homes either. Residents of the Willow Park subdivision near South Fork, Colo., watched their million-dollar mansions explode into flames as the Million Fire blew up in that part of the state on Thursday. Yet the Million Fire is not even Colorado's largest. The Hayman Fire near Denver has burned 137,000 acres, leveled 79 homes and cost $17.3 million.
Each succeeding summer brings a fiercer fire season, caused by drought, global climate change and -- perhaps most directly -- by the build-up of fuel on the ground, the latter the result of following Smokey's advice a little too enthusiastically.
Public awareness of the nation's perilous fire situation began 14 years ago when Yellowstone National Park erupted in flames. In 1988, about 7.4 million acres of one of America's national treasures burned. At the time, the National Park Service was roundly criticized for not doing enough to stop the fires. For some time, the NPS had been employing its famous "let burn" policy, which called for allowing natural fires -- usually caused by lightning -- to burn until they burned out. But the Yellowstone fires were the first to expose the public to the hazards of Smokey Bear's fire suppression policy. When all that accumulated fuel caught fire, the adjective "catastrophic" was the only one that seemed adequate.
Politicians, landowners near the park, and the media all howled. "Do something," they cried. So the Park Service fought the fires with all the tools they had available. They cut firebreaks with D-9s, they slurry bombed, they chopped trees and dropped liquid from helicopters.
About a year after the 1988 fires, there was a conference in Yellowstone on the ecological impact of the fires. One speaker noted the only firebreak that fires did not leap was Yellowstone Lake. A newspaper editor from nearby Jackson, Wyo. -- a community deeply and adversely affected by the fires -- held up a sheet of paper on which he offered his proposed slogan for the Yellowstone firefighters: "We saved the Lake!"
One of the lessons the Yellowstone fires taught us, and what we seem to need to learn again every fire season, is there is not much people can do in the face of these large, dry, wind-driven fires. In Yellowstone, winds pushed leap-frogging fires three miles over the firebreaks. At Colorado's Hayman fire, most firefighters can only watch helplessly as vast walls of flame consume everything in front of them.
It is hard to imagine the fury of a forest fire if you have not looked one in the teeth. The temperature of the flames can reach 2,200 degrees Fahrenheit. Terry Clark, a co-leader of the Wildfire Experiment at the Boulder, Colo., National Center for Atmospheric Research, attempts to develop computer models of fire behavior to increase the efficiency of firefighting and to make the effort safer for firefighters. A film of a July 1997 fire in Canada's Northwest Territories shows the kind of thing that Clark -- and the firefighters -- are up against. A vast column of flame that had been reaching skyward suddenly curls on itself like Satan's tongue and leaps over the tops of the trees, in an instant spreading the fire several hundred yards forward of its previous boundary. These are the kind of violent, unpredictable actions that make computer modeling difficult and cost firefighter lives.
Hans Friedli studies forest fires for a living. Also a scientist at NCAR, he looks at the ecological impacts of forest fires, especially the chemical residues thrown into the air. Friedli has made hundreds of overflights of forest fires.
"The lesson is that humans have interfered with nature over the last 100 years by extinguishing all the fires we can," Friedli told United Press International. "The result is that the forests are overgrown -- they are fire prone, not fire resistant. Three hundred years ago, these areas would burn on a regular basis, so you wouldn't have these dense stands of conifers. You would have some open areas. It would never go into crown fires which destroy all the trees."
The Hayman fire is a good example, Friedli added. "They couldn't do anything about the first several areas that burned ... Once you have an extreme fire, there is really very little you can do about it."
In other words, we can't stop the fires. Recent history and Smokey Bear have seen to that. What we can do is limit the damage by limiting development in fire-prone areas. "Last weekend, I was in Breckenridge, Copper Mountain and Vail," Friedli said, naming three of Colorado's top mountain ski towns. "When you look at what is happening up there, all the building that is going up, if there is a fire up there, all those houses are going to go up. There is no way the fire people can protect those houses. The trees are within 10 feet or closer, the density is high."
Friedli laid it on the line: "We have to make a decision -- either we are going to sacrifice those houses, or we are going to have to have much stricter laws of what you do when you build in those areas." Or, he said, you can make fire insurance so costly that people cannot afford to build there anymore.
So here is some more good advice that Americans are certain to ignore. Catastrophic fires, especially in the high, dry West, will continue to burn up all the fuel that Smokey Bear has so thoughtfully stockpiled for us.