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Learn about the burn

Latest forest center exhibit puts wildfires in historical perspective

Fuel + heat + oxygen = fire.

It's a simple formula with potentially catastrophic results, as Oregon's 2002 fire season illustrated. More than a million acres of the state's forests burned last summer, with the Biscuit Fire doing the greatest damage, burning the equivalent of nearly a half-million football fields.

Forest fires are the hot topic at the Forest Discovery Center, where the exhibit 'Fire: A Force of Nature' uses a variety of elements to entertain and educate.

Multimedia displays include stunning photographs of forest fires, radar footage of lightning strikes and a video history of Smokey Bear. A home safety video is directed at children, who also can try on a variety of firefighting uniforms.

The highlight of the exhibit is 'Fire Wars,' the Nova documentary that plays continuously in the museum's theater.

The 70-minute film offers a fascinating overview of man's million-year relationship with fire, with a primary focus on the last 100-plus years.

In 1899, the U.S. Geological Survey established a '100 percent suppression' policy toward forest fires, based on their belief that 'the effects of fire are always evil.' One hundred and one years later, the 2000 fire season offered dramatic payback for that policy.

The U.S. Forest Service 'hitched its star to fire suppression and changed forests in unprecedented ways,' says research forester and forest fire ecologist Dr. Stephen Arno of the U.S. Forest Service. The end result of the policy, he claims, were national forests choked with new growth, creating ideal conditions for devastating fires.

The two largest fires of the 2000 season are documented in the film with a white-knuckle intensity.

Ironically, the Los Alamos, N.M., fire was the result of a prescribed burn, one set by the forest agency to lessen the risk of a major fire. Before it was contained, the fire burned 43,000 acres and forced the evacuation of 25,000 residents.

Closer to home, Idaho's Clear Creek fire was started by lightning and burned more than 200,000 acres in a three-month period.

'Fire Wars' also breaks down the dramatic events of the famous Storm King Mountain fire, which took place in Colorado in 1994. The lightning-generated fire killed 14 firefighters Ñ nine of whom were from Prineville Ñ and prompted great criticism of firefighting techniques that proved to be too risky. Not only was a notification of changing winds ignored, but supervisors failed to provide adequate safety zones for the crews, pushing them into no-exit situations.

'The lessons of that fire are in the hearts and minds of the firefighters,' says John Maclean, author of the book 'Fire on the Mountain,' which documents the events of the tragedy. 'They learned that there's a time to say 'no.'

'It was also a warning that this is what we'll be dealing with from now on.'

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