Duke University Alumni Magazine

Do this summer's wildfires in the West reflect any weaknesses in forest-management practices, or are the fires simply part of a natural cycle?

Management practices and natural processes are both important. Actually, four separate factors have contributed to the remarkable (although not unprecedented) spate of fires this past summer, and their relative importance varies considerably from place to place.

First, fire is very much a part of most ecosystems in the western United States. For eons, the frequency and extent of fires in western forests and shrublands have been driven by the inexorable accumulation of woody debris (fuel), sources of ignition (lightning and human-set fires), and favorable climatic conditions (sufficient to dry out the fuels and drive the fires). The vast majority of plants and animals in these ecosystems can survive fires of low to moderate intensity; many actually depend on fire for their survival. The important lesson here is that in the absence of fire these ecosystems become increasingly flammable and when fires do occur, they tend to be considerably more intense and larger in extent.

Second, for most of the last century, such land management agencies as the National Park Service, Forest Service, and Bureau of Land Management pursued a vigorous policy of fire suppression, as symbolized by the Smokey Bear campaign. It is only in the last few decades that we've come to understand how this policy may produce outcomes totally opposite to its intended goal. It is certainly true that protection of many forest ecosystems from the relatively low-intensity fires that periodically cleared out accumulated fuel put large areas of the West at risk to conflagrations.

Changes in patterns of land use and access have also contributed to changes in fire frequency and behavior. Human activities (off-road vehicles, camping, logging) are in many areas the most important sources of ignition, and increased human access to once remote areas has certainly contributed to the number of fires set. You may recall that more than 30 million acres of public lands in the West were closed to access during the driest part of this summer.

Finally, we cannot underestimate the importance of residential development, even sprawl, into fire-prone areas. In and of itself, this may not have changed fire behavior--but it certainly has altered the human risks and liabilities associated with fires when they occur. In 1910, climatic conditions similar to this summer prevailed and extensive fires burned across many western states. Then, a single fire in the Bitteroot Valley, say, could spread over 100,000 acres and present little public risk. That is not possible today.

--Norm Christensen, dean of the Nicholas School of the Environment, who chaired the Interagency Review Panel on the Environmental Consequences of the Yellowstone Fires (1988-89) and, more recently, chaired the National Academy of Sciences panel on Forest Management in the Pacific Northwest

"You are the product of everything and everyone that has come before, and the choices you make will determine what happens next--here at the university, and in the world."

--President Nannerl O. Keohane, in her convocation address to the Class of 2004

"We know that each one of you--every one--can do more than one thing well. And, in fact, we know that there are things you haven't even done yet that you can do well. It'll be fun, and it'll be hard work, and it will be entirely worth it."

--Christoph Guttentag, director of undergraduate admissions, in his address to freshmen at convocation

"Basically, there are two different angles. The first one, the Sigma Nu angle, is one of moderate dryness, maybe you'd call it 'moist.' And then there is the Phi Delta Theta and Delta Sig [angle], which is very dry, a 'desert' maybe."

--Interfraternity Council president Chris Dietrich, a senior, on three campus fraternities that have adopted national alcohol-free measures, which range from out-of-section parties to no alcohol consumption whatsoever in fraternity dorms

We polled a freshman writing class:

What's been the biggest surprise after the first few weeks at Duke?

First-year students chose the challenge of time management. Michael Kovach, a varsity soccer player, echoed many of his peers: "My biggest surprise is the lack of free time I actually have. Although I only have a couple of classes each day and a relatively short practice, I somehow still cannot find much time at all to relax. From the time I awake to the time I go to sleep, I am always busy."

Amanda Adam described life at Duke as "intense" in the spheres of "academics, athletics, and social life" alike: "No matter how much I work at all of these things, I never seem to get ahead or even caught up." For Danny Wymer, the challenge of juggling priorities means "I have been very strict with myself and my studies." In high school, he said, "I really didn't do very much homework or have to study a lot."

Sue-Ellen Katz said the need for self-reliance was a surprise. "I never realized how great it would be to be on my own, nor how hard. Suddenly Mom and Dad aren't around to tell you when to eat, when to work, or what time to be home." Jeff Buttaccio, who has found a source of stability in a structure of friends and dorm, was pleasantly surprised that students "from all different backgrounds mesh well and offer a friendly environment."

For Uzo Mba, it was "how easily I've adapted to life here. It has always been a secret fear of mine that I wouldn't be good at managing my time, that I'd always be bogged down with school work, and I'd never have time for anything else." To his delight, he said, his schedule is manageable.

Others seemed comfortable in their new surroundings, but did find some campus features surprising--maybe even alarming: Burcu Seslioglu, from Turkey, wondered "whether it is usual in the States to have a McDonald's on campus."

This mid-September polling coincided with accusations that George W. Bush's campaign had used subliminal advertising in a campaign commercial to label Vice President Al Gore a "rat." Perhaps feeding off that timely animal imagery, Emily Reither said, "I was surprised at how big the rat was that I saw running from my dorm to the East Campus bus stop."

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