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Wildfires put lives on the line

Wildfires put lives on the line

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Thursday, July 12, 2001 MISSOULIAN EDITORIAL

SUMMARY: Deaths of firefighters are another reminder of the dangerous condition of our forests.

It's hard to imagine the fire season this summer being more intense than last year's, but it's already more deadly. Four Forest Service firefighters died Tuesday in northcentral Washington after a relatively small forest fire blew up and trapped them in a narrow canyon. Several other firefighters were injured and more than a dozen narrowly escaped disaster, some by crawling inside their emergency fire shelters.

It's another tragic reminder that there's more at stake in the ongoing debate over forest management and fire policy than matters of ecology and economy. The fire-prone condition of many areas of forest also pose a grave threat to people.

We will, of course, have to wait for investigators to determine exactly what caused or contributed to Tuesday's disaster in the North Cascades. Officials are certain to review every judgment and action leading up to the fire crew's entrapment. There's always something to learn from these events.

What we already know, however, is that every time a wildland firefighter heads to the fire line, he or she steps in harm's way. Despite tremendous advances in firefighting technology and tactics, danger is ever present. Wildfires have an unpredictable and awesome nature.

And we've also learned that the forests of the West are growing more dangerous with each passing year. Failing to fully understand fire's natural role in many forest areas, land managers for nearly a century aggressively fought to extinguish all wildfires. Fire suppression has changed the forests, allowing more and different trees to grow, accumulating unnatural levels of wood available to fuel a fire in dry years. The result has been larger and more intense forest fires that can be tremendously dangerous, burning so hot they can have an unnatural effect on the land. Although land managers and much of the public have come to understand fire's essential role in forests of the West, the unnatural condition of many of our forests makes every fire a potential disaster. The threat is especially great in drought years like this year and last.

It took many decades of fire suppression, logging and other land management practices to create this problem, and it will take decades more to correct it.

In the meantime, the danger grows.

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