Small controlled burns in the nation’s forests - designed to prevent larger wildfires - won’t force states out of compliance with clean-air regulations, federal officials said Tuesday.
But increased use of fire as a forest-management tool - a practice endorsed by the Clinton administration - worries Rep. Helen Chenoweth, R-Idaho, and other members of the House Committee on Resources.
At a hearing Tuesday, committee members asked why emissions from the burns won’t violate the Environmental Protection Agency’s standards for particulate matter, like soot and dust.
EPA Director Carol Browner said the agencies setting the fires - the Forest Service, National Parks Service and Bureau of Land Management - must follow strict guidelines tailored for each site.
Weather conditions are taken into account and the size of the burns are limited, Browner said.
If the weather changes and the pollution caused by a burn exceeds EPA standards, states will not be penalized, Browner told the committee.
Her assurances didn’t allay all of the members’ concerns.
If federal burns are exempt from clean-air regulations, Chenoweth asked, why aren’t emissions from wood stoves?
If the forest burns dirty the air, “more pressure would be put on utilities and private industry” to reduce their emissions to take up the slack, Chenoweth said.
But Interior Secretary Bruce Babbitt said controlled burns are needed to rid the nation’s forests of thick underbrush and small trees that have flourished under a century-old policy of aggressively fighting forest fires.
While fighting the blazes has preserved the beauty of the national forests and parks, it also has increased the overall fire danger.
During the dry season, underbrush acts like kindling that easily could turn a campfire into a raging forest fire.
“The only way to reduce the loss of life and property from fires is to attack the root of the problem - reduce fuels to more manageable levels and restore wildland fire to its natural ecological role,” Babbitt said. Another option, favored by Chenoweth, is to have workers physically remove the underbrush.
But Babbitt said that option is far too costly to be considered viable.
Controlled burns cost about $25 an acre, compared to up to $1,500 for brush removal.
According to Babbitt, 55 million acres of Interior land need “fire treatments.”
By the year 2000, Interior agencies hope to burn about 2 million acres a year on a rotating basis. The Forest Service, expected to burn a million acres this year, wants to set fire to 3.5 million acres annually by 2005.