To these direct losses must be added the vast intangible losses resulting from such things as the decay or deterioration of fire damaged timber, the replacement of desirable tree species by less valuable ones, soil deterioration and erosion, uncertain streamflow and flood damage resulting from fire, the destruction of game and valuable range, loss of scenic value, interruption of travel and of tourist business, and the disruption of industry and employment.
Though difficult to measure in dollars, these indirect losses are by no means theoretical. Los Angeles County in California had an excellent example a few years ago where cause and effect were as graphically apparent as if drawn out on a chart. On New Year’s Day 1934 a flood ripped out of Pickens’ Canyon destroying 400 homes in the town of Montrose, causing $5,000,000 in damage, and taking 34 lives. A month or so earlier a forest and brush fire had burned over the watershed above the canyon. Heavy rains occurred over that whole general region, but it was from the few hundred acres of burned watershed above Pickens’ Canyon, and only from that burned watershed, that damaging flood waters emerged.
Preventing and suppressing forest fires present their own peculiar problems. Forest fires are mostly outside the sphere of activity of city and municipal fire departments. The problems of time and distance to be overcome in forest country are much greater than in thickly populated areas. The values involved are generally without benefit of fire insurance.
Often, too, the damage amounts to a far greater loss in public values than in financial loss to the immediate owner. The Los Angeles County story I cited a moment ago is a case in point. The brush and chaparral consumed by that particular fire had little or no cash value of itself, but the flood damage resulting from that fire ran into the millions, and from that example we can readily see why it is often as important to protect brush or a scrubby growth from a fire as it is to protect mature timber. The brush or chaparral that many people call worthless may be worth many dollars per acre as watershed cover.
Systematic forest fire control began in this country about 40 years ago in national forests under administration of the United States Forest Service of the Department of Agriculture. It was for the most part a new endeavor, and focused first on the heroic task of controlling fires in the backcountry of the West. From that beginning it has advanced rapidly, until it has become a highly specialized undertaking in many sections and is steadily increasing in efficiency.
At about the same time, private timberland owners began to band together in timber protective associations. In 1911 the first real impetus to protection of State and private land came about through the Weeks law. It recognized the public stake in controlling fires and provided Federal funds to reinforce the efforts of States and private owners. In 1924 the Clark-McNary law greatly enlarged and liberalized these provisions. Under these acts the area of privately owned forest land protection has increased from 61,000,000 acres in 1911 to 319,000,000 acres in 1946. But there are still 120,000,000 acres of privately owned forest lands that as yet received no organized fire protection, and in many places the protection already in force needs greatly to be strengthened.
Responsibility for forest fire protection is now actively assumed by Federal, State, and private agencies. The United States Forest Service protects the largest area of Federal forest land, some 185,000,000 acres, but several other Federal agencies also have a highly important