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Friendly Fires

You've no doubt heard the reports: a fire set last week as a preemptive measure in New Mexico's Bandelier National Monument unexpectedly jumped the fire line and now threatens a nearby nuclear facility. It's the kind of event that causes even casual observers to pause. Yet while the potential for disaster still exists -- an additional 500 firefighters were recently dispatched to the area -- no matter what the outcome in Bandelier, fire will continue to be used as a tool to preserve natural habitats.

It's called a prescribed burn. And like a medical prescription, it's meant to be therapeutic. Such thinking, though, runs counter to common sense. After all, wildland fires destroy plants and animals and turn beautiful habitats into wastelands. But fire also is a naturally occurring phenomena, and experts believe that landscapes need occasional fires in order to thrive.

For one thing, periodic fires reduce the buildup of brush, dried branches, and other so-called fuel sources. These materials act as kindling and increase the speed at which fires spread. Too much fuel leads to more intense and destructive fires that resist containment.

Periodic fires also thin forests. Just as gardeners uproot young plants so that those remaining will grow larger, fires reduce the competition between trees and help the survivors mature. Similarly, fires kill non-native plants that have not adapted to periodic conflagrations.

But how exactly does a plant adapt to fire? A good example is the Lodgepole Pine, which produces cones that remain tightly closed on their branches for many years. It's not until a fire comes along that there's enough heat in the forest to open the Lodgepole's cones and release the seeds inside.

The problem with prescribed fires, of course, is that nature doesn't always cooperate with fire managers' plans. In the case of the New Mexico blaze, it seems that the wind suddenly shifted direction at the last minute. All we can do now is hope the fire crews soon prevail. Still, one setback will not slow the trend toward more and more prescribed fires. In 1998 the U.S. Bureau of Land Management burned more than 200,000 acres; in 1999 the number topped 300,000; and this year it will likely be even higher.