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WITH THE IMAGE of our government on everybody's mind this fall, it's interesting to note that the most successful governmental image ever created is that of Smokey Bear (Smokey the Bear, to the general populace). In a poll taken some years ago, only two-thirds of those surveyed could place the visage of the nation's president, but 95 percent recognized the ursine spokesperson of the U.S. Forest Service. For over half a century now, the avuncular bear with the work-gloved, admonishing forepaw and the suspenders has been affirming our instincts that we not only can, but should, prevent forest fires.

But the Smokey-Bear model makes sense, according to UMass forestry professor William Patterson, only if you're looking at trees primarily as timber or as an attractive feature of the landscape. In any wider perspective, fire is not only an inevitable but a beneficent force. As Patterson sees it, fire suppression the reigning model of forest management before the 1950s, still hanging on practice sets the larger environment on idle, triggers habitat degradation, and even subverts its own ends.

"I don't have anything against fighting forest fires," he says. "But I grate against newspaper stories about fire `destroying' Yellowstone. You can only benefit from fire, because fire is a natural part of the system."

The logical extension of this view is the attempt to replicate the natural benefits of wildfire in a time and place where human interests come first. For the last three summers, Patterson and his students have been practicing fire ecology deliberate and controlled fire-setting in three New England woodlands: the state forests of Martha's Vineyard and the Cape Cod National Seashore, and the forested areas of Hollis National Guard Base in southwest Maine.

What these sites have in common is an abundance of flammable scrub oak and pitch pine trees, whose copious annual discard of dead wood creates a large "fuel load." By identifying conditions that would start a conflagration, Patterson and his proteges can predict the likely behavior of a wildfire: which direction it will spread, how fast, how intensely. Then, before nature or human carelessness can strike, they begin a schedule of "prescribed burns" on small segments of land. Over the course of twenty-five to thirty years the average time span in which a natural burnoff would be expected each part of the forest will have been through a cycle of burn and regeneration.

"There's an immediate short-term loss," says Patterson, an understated academic whose gaze, behind square polarized lenses, is both humorous and challenging. "But it's swamped by the long-term gain to the system."

The Manuel F. Correllus State Forest on Martha's Vineyard is a living chronicle of how forest management has evolved in this century. Throughout the 5,100-acre preserve are ragged stands of pines that look as if they're being supported by crutches: dead trees that have toppled against the living ones. The needle-strewn floor supports only the thinnest growth of understory the small trees and shrubs between the ground cover and forest canopy and there is a moribund silence save for the occasional plaint of a jay.

"What you see here is not nature taking its course, but sixty years of management," says Adam Mouw, one of Patterson's graduate students, as he navigates his mini-van up, down, and around the ruts of one of the fire roads that crisscross the forest. Mouw, a Virginia native, was one of seven UMass students Patterson had stationed in the test forests last summer. As Mouw explains it, Correllus State Forest is an artificial environment; these struggling red and white pines would not be here had foresters not planted them for timber.

In the 1920s, this land then covered with a brushy mix of oak and pine was acquired by the commonwealth to be managed as a heath hen reservation. The habitat was ideal for this subspecies of the prairie chicken, which had gone extinct everywhere else a generation earlier. The landscape was shaped by a rhythmic cycle of growth and wildfire: scrub oak loses half its branches every year, creating a supply of natural kindling just begging to be burned. Recurring wildfires kept the ecosystem humming in very specific ways: for example, pitch pine cones release their seeds only in intense heat, and pine needles release their nutrients more quickly and completely when burned than when left to decompose. But that stubby, tick- and blackfly-harboring cover neither conducive to pleasant hikes nor beauteous to the eye was regarded as a wasteland by humans. Far better, according to the thinking of the day, to recast it as timberland.

And so seedlings of red and white pine, a northern species that had been profitable in other parts of the state, were planted in neat rows, plantation-style, in the Correllus State Forest. With a cash crop in the ground, a vigilant fire control policy was adopted. Protecting the pines would also protect the heath hen eggs, the rangers thought.

Without fire, however, the oaks began to upset the balance that had supported a rich and diverse animal population. Unable to survive in the denser woodland, the last heath hen on earth disappeared in 1932. The pines themselves, which grew poorly in the island's salty air and dry soils, became susceptible to root rot and the Nantucket pine-tip moth. The spindly stands never produced the expected profits.

Today, says Mouw, the state wants nothing more than to see the last of the pine plantation cut down. In 1992, Hurricane Bob blew down many trees, which have since lain around as eyesores. But a cleansing fire has not swept through this landscape for seventy years, and that's created a literal tinderbox on an island where state land butts up against private property now thick with summer homes and permanent residences.

By Mouw's calculation, a fire that struck today would burn hot and fast, fanning out a mile wide and burning 664 acres within an hour and a half. A prescribed burn last summer shocked him with how quickly it went up. But he predicted that the detailed mapping project he's a part of locating every plant community, every dell and ridge and microclimate within each of thirty-one half-mile "compartments" in the forest would be completed by this fall; then crews can come in and burn, a compartment or two at a time, over a number of years. If all goes well, not only will a catastrophic fire be avoided, but introduced species will give way to the natural diversity that once flourished on the island.

Just as there have been islanders who have complained about the shaggy state of the forest, there are some who don't like the idea of prescribed fires. "It looks bad for a while," acknowledges Mouw. But not for long, he stresses. Driving out the main road that leads to Tisbury, Mouw pulls over to a stretch of woods, where Patterson and his crew burned some fifteen acres of understory just a few weeks earlier. "That land was bare when we arrived," says Mouw. Now, already, vigorous shoots of blueberry, huckleberry, ferns and oak are staking their claim on the darkened ground.

"The goal is to figure out what needs to occur to protect the environment, and what needs to occur to preserve people's lives and property," says Mouw. "In this case, those goals are fairly close together."

A prescribed burn is lit on the ground with drip torches dramatic, flaring implements whose wicks trail a wake of fire fueled by a mixture of gasoline and kerosene or, occasionally, with fire dropped from a helicopter. To delimit the compartment to be burned, crews will often burn a swatch on its lee side, so the main fire, pushed by headwinds, will stop when it runs out of fuel. Other times, they sluice down the boundaries with water. Occasionally they create fire breaks with bulldozers, but that's an expensive option that also increases the risk of erosion. Once the fire is lit, crews spread out across the compartment, observing the advance of flames and staying in close touch via walkie-talkie.

Running a prescribed burn requires not only the observational skills of a meteorologist but the foresight of a chess master and the patience of a yogi. Prevailing winds, the likelihood of rain, and the number of days since the last downpour are weighed against the flammability of the compartment to be burned. Waiting for just the right balance of factors has given Patterson plenty of time to meditate on Mark Twain's comment about the fickleness of New England weather. In places like Cape Cod, he's waited years for optimal conditions, had a crew poised to light their torches, and been forced to call off the burn at the last minute when the weather changed.

As a burn date approaches, students write up a detailed burn plan a fine exercise in thinking through every contingency and have the final draft approved by Patterson or the on-site burn boss. No fire gets lit without this plan, an exhaustive document that includes maps, back-up crew phone numbers, step-by-step plans for what to do if a fire leaps a boundary, and locations for cutting emergency fire breaks, if it comes to that.

If it all sounds like just so much hot, scary human meddling, it is. But there's good meddling and bad meddling, points out David Crary `82, `85G, one of Patterson's proteges who went on to a career in fire at Cape Cod National Seashore. As fire management officer for the 40,000-acre seashore, Crary saw firsthand what the dearth of fire was doing there: "Our management was hastening the disappearance of flora and fauna," he says bluntly. Cape Cod is home to rare butterflies, dragonflies, and a number of unclassified invertebrates. But as decades' worth of flammable "necromass," or dead wood, built up in the seashore's forests, both the fire-dependent pitch pine and oak and the animals that depended on them were languishing.

That began to change when UMass began burning. Patterson and his graduate students teamed up with Crary's burn team twice this year once in April before the trees leafed, again in July. Patterson, whom Crary describes not only as "meticulous" but as ever the student himself, wanted to compare the effects of fire in different seasons.

Between his regular trips to burnsites and his teaching load, William Patterson is a hard man to pin down. One day this fall, he was to be found not in his book-jammed corner office in Holdsworth but across the hallway, showing a student how to set up a microscope to look at fossilized pollen. With his unlined face and lean frame, he looks a decade younger than his fifty-four years a testament, perhaps, to the good effects of doing what you love. A decided aroma of charred wood surrounds him, though whether it emanates from arboreal specimens in the lab or is permanently fixed in his pores is difficult to say.

Forestry professor Bill Patterson, wielding his drip torch.

Patterson is one of those people who know in childhood exactly what they want to do with their lives. His desire to be a forest ranger was rooted in summer trips to his family's hunting camp in northern Minnesota. His grandfather's talk of the endless sea of forest as just one phase in a vast cycle was mesmerizing to him; his young mind tried to wrap itself around the perception that the forests that appeared so eternal were but brief appearances when viewed through the lens of ecological time. A few years later, in 1957, he saw another aspect of that leafy illusion when his father was transferred on a Navy assignment to Cape Cod: the last great wildfire on the South Shore occurred shortly after the family arrived. Flames licked 150 feet into the sky, jumping highways and stopping only when they reached Cape Cod Bay. "I have this vivid memory of driving to scout camp through this absolutely blackened landscape," recalls Patterson. The charred ground looked as if nothing could ever grow from it again, yet the forest sprang back almost immediately.

Patterson entered the University of Maine imagining he would pass his life at the top of a tower, watching for distant wisps of smoke. He soon learned that there's more to forestry than fire-spotting. Yet in the early '60s, the conventional wisdom still stressed forest management à la Smokey. Researching his senior thesis, Patterson found only a single paper on the benefits of fire. But the paradigm was beginning to shift, he says; today there are thousands of published works on the subject.

Returning to the Midwest for graduate school, Patterson found people at the University of Minnesota who were researching the beneficial effects of fire on red and white pine. He began to study fire history, reconstructing how fires began by examining charcoal and pollen from lake sediment and bogs. American Indians, like most native peoples, had been using fire for thousands of years; it became clear to Patterson that this force of nature "has consistently created habitats that have provided food and nesting environments for species which, with the suppression of fire, are becoming increasingly rare." There were, he saw, serious side effects to fire prevention, and "if we've eliminated the regular, natural burns, then in order to maintain flora and fauna we have to go in and introduce fire or replicate the effects of fire on the landscape."

When Patterson began teaching at UMass in 1978, prescribed burns were a foreign concept in New England. Yet wildfires were a real problem some 9,000 spark up in Massachusetts each year. His first forays into setting blazes took place on Audubon land on Nantucket, and at a military base on Cape Cod where artillery practices were regularly sparking fires.

In a rare meeting of minds between such groups as the Nature Conservancy and the U.S. Air Force, Patterson and his students restored wildlife habitat around the base while reducing flammable debris. With such successes, the prescribed fire idea began to catch on, and Patterson was soon bringing five or ten students along on burns. Some of those students have gone on to become "burn bosses" in forests around the country.

There is still plenty of debate among foresters about the best way to think about Prometheus's gift to humankind. The debate touches on one of the central philosophical issues of our time. For example, says Patterson, whereas fires started by lightning are now generally left to burn, those caused by human agency a carelessly tossed cigarette, arson, a backyard brushfire that gets out of hand are fought. Is Homo sapiens part of nature? Or are we separate, our actions exempt from the natural order?

In Patterson's view, such distinctions literally miss the forest for the trees. Whether we're interlopers or just another species is a moot point, and so is what starts a given forest fire. He would make the decision, were it his to make, on fighting a fire of any origin on the usual bases: whether or not it poses a threat to lives and homes. But that doesn't obviate the need to appreciate the ecological benefits of fire.

Patterson's work suggests that, while we no longer live so intimately with the land as did native peoples, we must cultivate their ability to understand, without sentimentality, the interdependence between creative and destructive forces. Too often, he feels, we value saving individual lives, or trees, or pieces of property, at the expense of a larger whole. His own preference for thinking large is reflected in his answer to the question of whether it troubles him to set healthy vegetation on fire.

"Personally, I'm more interested in communities than in individuals," he said. "I'm more concerned that all of human society survives than that individuals do. Because we can't any of us live forever."