Monday, August 11, 2008

One Less Tool in the Belt for Firefighters

Bump…there is the sound again of the Bush Administration butting in where they have no business. This time it is in the act of wildland firefighting.

A policy known as “wildland fire use” has been utilized by regionally managed forests based on the determination of local fire managers. It has been successful. Naturally ignited fires in wilderness areas that pose no threat to populations or infrastructure have been allowed to burn as a forest management apparatus. It is no secret that even wildland fire managers regard fire as a cost effective, management tool; one that they would prefer to keep on their belt. These fires are usually well behaved and take a small crew to monitor until natural events extinguish them. They cost about $50 per acre compared to $500 per acres to be fully contained and extinguished by firefighting forces.

Part of this policy was also being used in the name of safety. Some of these wilderness fires are in the most remote and unforgiving places in the west, yet the order by California Regional Forester Randy Moore back in early July says that we will fight and spend $500 an acre on every fire no matter what kind of threat (or not) it poses.

Perhaps vowing to pressure from local communities about smoke and health related problems caused by fires that are not aggressively fought are one of the reasons Moore took this action. He also cited the National preparedness level which is all but depleted after a month and a half of aggressive firefighting in California and other parts of the west. Perhaps he feared that one of the “wildland use fires” would blow up and suddenly threaten a community when there are no additional resources at a key moment. Regardless, rather than laying low on non-threatening fires, he intends on fighting every fire aggressively spending tax payer dollars and placing firefighters in harm’s way on dangerous fires.

Does this sound familiar?

Since 1910 and then especially in the 1930s when we really stared to become good at extinguishing every fire early in its quest to do important ecological work, we squished them. Didn’t that lead too much of the problem we have today?

Small enclaves throughout the west have become serious about fuels mitigation. It has to be a conscious and ethical integrated management plan. Maintaining the forest in the absence of the natural force of fire is a complicated issue with many sides that have little trust for the motives of the other. We must choose however, to allow fire to do its work or step-in as a well funded surrogate wherever fire can not be used. Now doesn’t that open up a Pandora’s political Box?

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