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Is It Global Warming or Lack of Fire?

due less to global warming than to lack of human involvement

This is Dark Cloud on Wednesday, September 21, 2005.

It was in October of 2003 that I last touched on pine beetles and forest fires. As surely as the Gulf Coast awaits hurricanes this time of year, we await a fire in large stands of dead, tinder dry trees in a narrow canyon – say, like Boulder’s - one so hot that it might not be necessary to mine metal for a few years, it’ll simply melt out of the cliffs and rocks. If said canyon has a predominant wind, from west to east, say - like Boulder’s – and if the canyon catches uphill and blows downhill it will have the effect of an acetylene torch on the city, and the road itself will catch fire and burn.

In 2003, I wrote of a California event: “The fires, powered by the Santa Anna winds, moved so fast through the dry grass and beetle killed evergreens that it often covered a football field, one hundred yards, in ten to fifteen seconds. Jim Thorpe ran one hundred yards in full leather in ten seconds… The fire moved so fast that cars were caught and the occupants convection baked from both sides of the road.” And that wasn’t in a high, narrow canyon like the one connecting Boulder to Nederland.

There is risk of a flood in Boulder canyon, and we are overdue, but it is the fire danger of Boulder Canyon that scares me far more.

Pine beetles first started appearing en masse in Boulder and Colorado in the 1970’s although they’ve apparently always been around in reduced numbers till conditions changed. I read in the news that the rapid spread of the pine beetle is being blamed on global warming, and that as it hits the trees near the timberline and spreads north into Canada, the warmer temperatures are the culprit. When below zero weather is sustained for any period, the beetles and their progeny die, the trees recover, and nature is again in the pristine balance that existed before the horrible, awful white man disrupted the harmony of nature. This finds support on the ecological left.

But a bigger reason that our western forests are devastated with pine beetle is because there have been no forest fires to prune and husband their health. Fires in healthy forests burn off the dead wood, clear the flooring for seedlings to take root, allow sun to nurture growth good for deer and elk, and mostly sear but do not kill large trees or healthy trees. That is, if allowed to take place with some regularity, there’s never enough dead wood to build up the fuel and heat to kill and burn so many live trees, at least as often as happens now. A healthy forest has trees of every age growing together, and stands of old trees that died aren’t big enough to leave the entire area looking like, well, so much of it does now.

There have been no fires like the Indians used to set on grassland and forest in nature’s absence, and due to our ignorance, we have thousands of square miles of dead and dying softwood timber standing across the state, waiting for a drunk, or a mere idiot smoker, a forest service employee burning her divorce papers, or merely a four wheeler with a hot muffler to send it all up. Just drive up to Nederland and look. It’s quite sobering. These are big trees, and all aflame at once, that’s a lot of heat in an enclosed, narrow canyon with a western wind.

When the first Europeans started settling back East, some remarked on how easy it was to drive carriages through the forest, because they resembled English parks with many trees and little ground clutter to interfere with mounted progress. As the years passed, and the Indians died of disease or were forced to move away, the shrubbery came back, and the need arose for the building of roads that had never really existed before. Without those chronic firings of the woods, the ground clutter came back. And the forest began to be sick.

Up to the early 19th century, New Yorkers used to rent boats to sail up the Hudson each autumn to see the huge and apparently beautiful grass and forest fires set by the Indians to ensure good crops in the spring. Tours were arranged, and people paid to see these huge natural events from the safety of the river.

It’s now pretty much been proven that the Great Plains and forests of the American West were terra-formed by the native Americans, using fire every year to guarantee rich grass growth in the spring and, perhaps inadvertently, good food for their game animals in the mountains. I call these fires natural events, yet some of you take umbrage and classify them as man-made. I fail to see the difference.

I think that is the issue that the Ecological Left needs to address. Because what the left postulates as a natural world in balance was as surely man made as a Happy Meal.