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The same flames that have destroyed hundreds of houses in New Mexico will lead to creation of new and better homes for untold numbers of deer, fox, owls, and other creatures of the forest, according to wildlife ecologists. But some experts believe that the immediate devastation of a “prescribed burn” that went horribly wrong dramatizes a need to seriously re-examine the U.S. government’s decades-long policy of deliberately putting selected wilderness areas to the torch.

Eye in the Sky

“At some point you quit excusing this practice as natural or necessary, and say maybe we’re not doing it right,” says Arizona State University’s Stephen J. Pyne, who has written extensively on the history of the role of fire in the natural environment and teaches courses on the subject. “Fire has a place, but maybe it should be done differently.”

No human lives have been lost as a result of the fire that was deliberately set May 4 by Park Service officials to burn off accumulated dry wood and debris in Bandelier National Monument in hopes of preventing a catastrophic blaze set off by lightning. But as high winds and low humidity contributed to driving the fire out of control, more than 400 housing units were destroyed in the town of Los Alamos. About 11,000 residents had to be evacuated.

The flames also swept over the nearby nuclear weapons laboratory, where four of five historic structures used in the Manhattan Project’s assembly of the original atomic bomb during World War II were consumed.

Officials said that as of May 16, the outbreak had been 28 percent contained. However, more than 1,260 firefighters were still battling the blaze, which had raged through at least 44,323 acres and was threatening the 50,000-acre Santa Clara Pueblo. The Indian reservation has about 1,500 residents and a collection of ancient dwellings believed to have been built 800 years ago.

Preliminary results of a government investigation into the circumstances of the outbreak were due to be released on Thursday. Pending that probe by state, local, and federal representatives, U.S. Interior Secretary Bruce Babbitt and Agriculture Secretary Dan Glickman on May 12 suspended for 30 days the practice of prescribed burns. The temporary ban extended to 11 western states.


The incident seems likely to trigger a wide-ranging debate over the practice of periodically igniting small fires in order to prevent bigger outbreaks. Pete Domenici, the U.S. senator from New Mexico , along with other members of the state’s congressional delegation, have called for hearings. Domenici has requested a thorough investigation by the General Accounting Office, the U.S. Congress’ watchdog agency. Domenici wants the GAO to look into the details of this particular blaze, as well as to review the government’s whole prescribed burn policy.

The idea of setting small fires in order to prevent big ones has been around for roughly a century, and has been federal government policy since 1968. Foresters realized that the previous practice of suppressing all wildfires was actually hurting the natural balance of wilderness areas. Not only were forests accustomed to periodic pruning by wildfires being allowed to thicken, but many species of plants and animals that over eons have adapted to living with fire were being disrupted.

“I would think that if you walked through the Los Alamos area five or ten years from now, it will be so much improved,” said Forest Service fire effects specialist Dennis Simmerman. As disastrous as the fire has been for humans, Simmerman said, “You’ll soon have much improved vegetation for wildlife to use for cover and forage. The underbrush was very dense, hard for wildlife to penetrate. It will be more park-like, with openings and better visibility.”

Recalling a venerable American fire-prevention icon, Simmerman added, “The Smokey the Bear syndrome has been around for 80 or 90 years, saying that we don’t want fire in the forest. But Mother Nature has a different way of doing things. We need fire periodically just as a cleanup mechanism.”

Simmerman’s employer, the U.S. Forest Service Fire Sciences Laboratory in Missoula, Montana, has developed a database covering the effects of fire on about 1,000 plant and animal species on the North American continent.


The entries, based on a wide range of scientific literature collected since 1986, contain striking examples of how many species depend on fire to maintain their habitats and create new food sources. Although some animals inevitably are trapped and killed by fires, many more benefit.

One study found that the moose population on Lake Superior’s Isle Royale more than quadrupled in the decade following a 1936 fire that burned 26,000 acres. The University of Minnesota’s Laurtis W. Krefting concluded that “fire is the primary agent for maintaining the secondary successional vegetation that moose prefer.”

Paradoxically, the suppression of fire has led to a dramatic reduction in the nation’s grasslands, along with the animals that once lived there, according to Arizona State University biologist David E. Brown.

“It’s an international phenomenon,” said Brown. “When they’re not maintained by fire, grasslands become invaded by shrubby species—-plants or trees. Grassland species like bison, elk, and pronghorn antelope have declined significantly since 1900 because people put the fires out. Bison used to be in North Carolina and Kentucky.”

However, there is considerable disagreement among academics and practitioners as to how best to use controlled fires to maintain wilderness areas and prevent more catastrophic blazes.

“I’m all in favor of [controlled] burning,” said Arizona State’s Stephen Pyne. “I’d like to see more. But we’re talking about a complicated and expensive business.” Pyne argues that other methods of reducing underbrush and debris that fuels large wildfires are underused, for example allowing people to haul it away for firewood, converting it to wood chips, allowing goats to browse it, and selective logging.


“I’m arguing for a slightly more complex, nuanced approach,” said Pyne. “We need to think very seriously about making controlled burning work better. It’s not going to be equally useful in all places.”

“We may need to make some adjustments,” said fire scientist and forest ecologist Kevin Ryan, director of the Forest Service’s Fire Effects Information System in Missoula. “I agree that we cannot rely entirely on fire alone, and we may need to make some adjustments. There’s probably a number of existing models that managers use to predict fire behavior and effects that need additional research and improvement.”

In the meantime, officials say that people who move into wilderness areas, like the forests surrounding Los Alamos, need to understand that fire is a natural part of the landscape. They advise making their homes more “fire-safe” by keeping yards green and clear of debris, thinning out trees near houses, and using metal, tile or other nonflammable materials for roofs.

“People who live in the woods don’t realize it could happen to them,” says the Forest Service’s Simmerman. “Some day Mother Nature is going to have fire licking at your door.”

Eye in the Sky is a weekly series that brings you the story behind the headlines using satellite imagery, remote sensing, aerial photography, and maps. This feature is developed by National Geographic News with the sponsorship of the National Imagery and Mapping Agency (NIMA) and Earth-Info. Check out maps and imagery at

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More Information
• To date, the Los Alamos fire has consumed at least 44,323 acres and forced the evacuation of 11,000 residents. More than 400 housing units in the town have been destroyed, along with some buildings at the Los Alamos National Laboratory.
• Though officials say it has been 28 percent contained, the fire is now threatening the 50,000-acre Santa Clara Pueblo with its 1,500 Indian residents and 800-year-old dwellings.
• By comparison, A 1977 fire in La Mesa, New Mexico, near Los Alamos, burned 15,270 acres and damaged laboratory property.
• In 1996, the Dome Fire reached the edge of the laboratory as it swept through 16,500 acres.

More Information
Many plant and animals species depend on periodic fires to clean up their homes and even lead to creation of new food sources. The following examples are from a scientific database maintained by the Forest Service’s Fire Sciences Laboratory in Missoula, Montana.
  • Grizzly Bears: Fires can promote and maintain many important berry-producing shrubs that bears depend upon for food. Though some individuals may be killed in fires, many scientists have blamed fire suppression in some areas for the decline of the species.
  • Bald Eagles: Fires create “snags”—-important perching and nesting sites. Controlled fires can be used to reduce litter buildup, control disease, and allow more vigorous trees to reach maturity, thus providing more old-growth habitat.
  • Beavers: Most are believed to easily escape fire, and their lodges, typically built over water, are thought to be at little risk. Fire benefits beavers by encouraging vigorous sprouting of aspen, willows, alders, and red-osier dogwood—-all prime beaver food that eventually grow to be too large for them to use.
  • Wolves: These and other predators such as mountain lions depend on beaver, elk, moose, deer, and other species that rely on the plants that spring up after fires. A study published in the Journal of Ecology showed how moose moved into a fire-struck area around Wells Gray Park in British Columbia, followed by a “marked increase in wolves.”
  • Spotted Owls: These birds historically occupied areas of burned and unburned forest, and although fires may kill some individuals and destroy nests, most spotted owl habitat owes its structure to fire. However, with its habitat greatly reduced and fragmented, owl populations have become increasingly vulnerable to loss of habitat due to burning.
  • Canada Geese: Fire is often used to rejuvenate southern marshes for waterfowl and to maintain grasslands important to the geese by forestalling shrub growth. In Louisiana, late winter marsh fires provide early spring food for geese when they need it the most.
  • Trumpeter Swans: Fire occurring in wetland habitats often removes excess accumulations of certain fast-growing plants, allowing better waterfowl access and growth of more desirable trumpeter swan foods such as pondweed and duckweed. Large-scale Autumn burning, however, may reduce the retention of drifting snow—-which is vital to marsh survival.
  • Northern Bobwhites: Fires during nesting season may destroy nest eggs and young chicks. But prescribed burning has been deemed one of the most effective means of stimulating and controlling vegetation for improvement of habitat, for example by increasing the number and quality of legume species.