With hundreds of wildfires raging across the arid American West, the Bush administration and a group of governors have announced a new strategy in battling the blazes: greater focus on prevention.
America's basic approach for decades has been reactive: to throw massive resources into stopping fires right from the start hoping to contain them.
This month, that approach has been particularly taxing. In the West, the summer wildfire season has begun in earnest, with hundreds of lightning-ignited fires burning in eight states, smoke shutting down part of Interstate 80 in the Sierras, and firefighters considering asking the military for help.
That old strategy will be amended by reintroducing the controversial prevention method called controlled burning, where fires are intentionally set to destroy underbrush and other material that can fuel infernos.
"We have a huge buildup of fuels within our forests," said Secretary of the Interior Gale Norton. "Our forests today are 10 times as dense as they were in 1900."
Norton and Agriculture Secretary Ann Veneman today signed with the Western Governors Association a 10-year plan for preventing and managing wildfires on federal lands.
"We are more effective in responding to wildfire emergencies," said Veneman. "However, we have not yet realized our potential when it comes to reducing wildfire risks through proactive management."
A Serious Commitment
The new effort will not be without risks. It was a controlled burn that raged out of control that produced a disastrous fire last summer, causing the destruction of more than 200 structures in Los Alamos, N.M.
"Fire is not ecological pixie dust," said fire historian Steve Pyne, a professor at Arizona State University, who believes the policy is risky, difficult and expensive.
He said that once committed, it would not be easy to turn back. "It is not a one-off solution … It's not a kind of inoculation," he said. "You are going to have to do this forever."
"It will take sustained funding and a committed, long-term partnership by all those involved to effectively manage fire-prone ecosystems," Idaho Gov. Dirk Kempthorne said.
Big Challenges Ahead
Everybody seems to agree that something needs to be done. A recent federal study found that nearly one-third of all federal lands have accumulated dangerous levels of combustible material. Without sustained clearing by either fire or thinning, the report warned of large, intense wildfires beyond anything experienced so far.
Currently, more than 320,000 acres are burning out of control in the West, which has experienced some particularly dry weather this year.
Overnight, lightning strikes ignited more than 400 new fires, many in Oregon and Washington, where at least two homes were destroyed and several others evacuated. Thunderstorms also recently set massive fires in Nevada. Two dozen homes along the California border are threatened.
"We are already committing huge amounts of money after the fact putting out forest fires," says Oregon Gov. John Kitzhaber. "What we're simply saying is let's make a long-term budget commitment on the planning, necessary to make the forests of the western United States healthy again."
— ABCNEWS' Bill Redeker and David Ruppe contributed to this report.