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Charred timber and ash left by the Jocko Lakes fire near Seeley Lake, Montana, in 2007. Photo by Anne Medley.
Charred timber and ash left by the Jocko Lakes fire near Seeley Lake, Montana, in 2007. Photo by Anne Medley.

The Fires Next Time

Think about wildfire in the West and it’s hard to picture a rosy future, except for the sunsets bleeding through the smoke.

Climate change is creating longer, hotter, more explosive burning seasons, while more and more homes sprout on flammable ground. Meanwhile, the pool of firefighting talent keeps getting smaller: there are fewer trained crews, air tankers and helicopters available than there were 20 years ago. Complicated and sometimes contradictory federal policies make it difficult for the next generation of firefighters to get the training and experience they need.

And for those who do meet the requirements for this dirty and dangerous work, there’s a new specter searing the mind of fire bosses: criminal prosecution if something goes wrong and firefighters are hurt or killed.

While fire is increasingly – and properly – understood as a necessary part of many functioning ecosystems, controlled burning is a complicated and sometimes dangerous process. Fire managers often are reluctant to start fires or let natural fires burn, because an escape could leave their careers in ashes, or at least well toasted.

Those were some of the topics outlined this week at a four-day conference in Jackson, Wyoming, sponsored by the International Association of Wildland Fire and the National Park Service, an event that drew about 400 firefighters, scientists and officials from land management agencies. While most are from the United States, some came from as far as Australia, Japan and Portugal.

The focus of the conference was the 20th anniversary of the 1988 fires in Yellowstone National Park, which many described as the onset of a new era in firefighting and fire management.

“Nature is not always a gentle hostess,” recalled Bob Barbee, the park’s superintendent at the time. He called the fires of that summer “unpredictable, unpreventable, uncontrollable and finally unimaginable.”

Fires that year scorched 1.4 million acres in and around the park, while torching another million acres in other places around the West.“It was the first time in my career I saw the world’s best firefighters get their butts kicked,” said Rex Mann, a planner in the Yellowstone firefighting efforts. The fires “were beasts the like of which we’d never seen before.”

But the beasts still roar. Fires of similar intensity have erupted across the West over the past two decades, from Colorado to California, from Arizona to Montana. Today’s rookie firefighters are seeing things that veterans of previous generations thought they’d never encounter. And the monsters could grow even bigger.

“We continue to exceed our previous standards, in terms of unbelievability, in fire behavior,” said Steve Frye, a former commander of an elite Type I firefighting team.

If the climate scientists are right – there were a number of them here, and they all had a similar message – future firefighting will require two times the muscle and machinery just to wrestle fires down to current levels, Frye said. If the tools and people materialize, they won’t be cheap. Firefighting has often cost the U.S. Forest Service more than $1 billion a season in recent years, draining money from other programs.

And some fires will escape no matter what people throw at them. It is “reasonable to consider” fires of three million acres to nine million acres in the northern Rockies if the right conditions arise, according to George Weldon, deputy regional director for fire for region one of the Forest Service, headquartered in Missoula.

He called for agencies and the public to learn to live with fire. “The fires are not the problem,” he said. “The problem is the effect of the fires on the people.” Those effects can include sick-making smoke, travel restrictions, lost property, injury and, occasionally, death.

So, what can be done?

Weldon predicted that land managers will rely increasingly on planned or “prescribed” fire as a tool that can sap the punch from inevitable wildfire. Chainsaws won’t do the trick, at least not everywhere. “The Forest Service will not log our way out of the issue we’re in,” he said. “Our primary tool is going to be fire.”

But using fire, instead of fighting it, won’t be easy, especially if the woods become even more flammable. There is resistance both from the public and from people inside government. This year, the federal government oversaw 211,000 acres of prescribed burns, according to Tom Nichols, chief of fire and aviation for the National Park Service. But there were 4.6 million acres of wildfires.

Aside from the technical challenges, there is even disagreement over what to label a fire you aren’t trying to put out. The “let burn” label still rankles many in the Park Service. A “wildland fire use fire” is unwieldy and confuses the public. And a new term, “appropriate management response,” while it has the support of some scientists and green groups, sounds even more bureaucratic.

At the simplest level, the latter term means officials will look a fire over, then decide whether to fight it or monitor it, relying on a set of preset parameters. The response will depend on circumstances like topography, weather and potential threats. But even that process can suffer from political interference.

This year, when thousands of fires erupted in California, “prescribed fire was out the window,” Nichols said.

Other areas of government harbor inconsistencies as well. The Occupational Safety and Health Administration (OSHA) interprets the law to mean everybody is warranted a safe workplace, according to Assistant U.S. Attorney and former firefighter Mike Johns. Yet the Forest Service grants firefighters hazard pay, which implies acceptance of danger.

Even the Department of Justice is divided. Lawyers working on civil cases see firefighting safety rules as “guidelines” while criminal lawyers cited those same rules when they filed manslaughter charges in the wake of the 2001 Thirtymile Fire in Washington. “There’s a huge disconnect in the legal environment we’re currently dealing with,” Johns said. The Thirtymile charges were later reduced to misdemeanors, but the incident cast a pall over the fire community.

“Firefighters are starting to wonder if their agencies are willing to back them up if something goes wrong,” Johns said.

Dick Mangan, past president of the wildland fire association and a firefighter for more than 30 years, said one third of that group’s members said they would be reluctant to take on some supervisory roles in the wake of the criminal charges.

“We’re having a hard time getting people to take crews out,” he said. “We’re on a dangerous path here. I don’t like the future, guys. I don’t think it’s that bright right now.”

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4 comments

  1. Given the charming track record on the few prescribed burns this year on TOP of the suppression record (expenditure, that is) the simple fact is that insisting on burning needs to be accompanied by an insistence on logging where it would:
    1. pay
    2. make sense in future burn scenarios
    In fact, the USFS (meaning both Bosworth and Kimball) should have been far more aggressive either internally or at every Congressional and public opportunity in getting this message across — not just up the food chain, but DOWN through the ranks.
    The past six years have been an enormous blown opportunity in terms of market value lost to fire, something nobody mentions. That market value could have, no, make that WOULD have been a serious start toward the kind of cash flow needed to support properly-staffed management of fires as well as other vegetation control techniques.
    I am amazed that this was so little discussed at this meeting of agency people. Was it discussed at all, Scott, or what?

  2. Where would all those trees you wished were cut down during the past six years have gone? We’re in the middle of the worst housing slump since the Great Depression, the demand for lumber has plummeted and lumber prices are 45% what they were five years ago.

    Seriously, what kind of a “cash flow” would dumping a bunch more timber on the markets during the past 6 years have generated? And how is that sound economic policy or environmental policy, especially if you’re talking about public lands owned by all taxpayers? Talk about a bail out!

    The best fire policy for public lands and the taxpayer is to let fire do its thing over much of the landscape and enforce strict zoning and “fire-wise” measures for those who choose to live in fire dependent wildlands. These folks should also pay high insurance premiums. Fuel reduction efforts should be focused immediately around communities where they will do most good. The combo of homeowner efforts and larger community efforts should allow firefighters to more safely and efficiently do their jobs while fire naturally (and cheaply) reduces fuels outside of these community protection zones. This is the best policy for the taxpayers and the land.

    Contrary to what some people would have you believe, the vast majority of these fires are burning at low to moderate severity and even the high-severity burned areas are well within a range of natural variability. I regularly hunt morels and elk in recently burned forests and I can tell you from first hand experience they contain a great deal of plant and animal life and are a “healthy ecosystem” by any bona-fide definition.

  3. Say 1/3 burns at low, 1/3 burns at medium, and 1/3 burns at high intensity just for the sake of argument. (With very large fires we see more burning at the higher intensities.) Most of these WFU fires are burning in Inventoried Roadless Areas where passive restoration is the preferred alternative. That means no replanting of trees, etc. When 800,000+ acres burned in Central Idaho in 2007, 1/3 is roughly 270,000 acres or 420 square miles. Most of this was in very steep terrain. Very steep. I don’t know if God was listening to our prayers or if we just got very luck with spring runoff this year, but we avoided massive landslides this spring. We weren’t as fortunate with the summer thunderstorms. Right now, in the areas that burned at high intensity, there is no grass growing. There is very little growing in the moderately burned areas. There is bear grass, but that isn’t a grass and no animals eat it. Our erosion potential is huge. I rewatched Idaho PBS’s show on the 2007 wildfires on Sunday. They were commenting on how we didn’t have the massive erosion problems they anticipated this spring. They came this summer and may come over the next several years.

    Yellow Pine had to shut downt their community water system because of the sediment this summer.

    More mercury is realeased by forest fires in Idaho each year than from all reported industrial sources in our state. Less than 500 pounds per year vs 4000 pounds on avearge, maybe up to 3,000 pounds in 2007.

    AS much CO2 is produced by forest fires in a few months as all the cars in the US each year.

    At this point, logging alone isn’t the answer. The Forest Service needs to get back to the multiple use concept and to management of the resource. Recreation is one of the uses as is wildlife habitat. Logging and grazing can be used as management tools.

    60% of the Cascade Ranger District of the Boise National Forest burned last year. 90% of the Payette National Forest has burned since 1985. Almost none of the burned areas will ever be replanted.

    I would gladly have watched my cabin burn last summer if that would have prevented my trees from burning. I can replace the cabin in one season. I’m not going to live long enough to see 100 year old trees replaced. You have no idea of how many squirrels burned last year. I guess better a quick death by fire than slow death by starvation. This may be an inholding of the National Forest now, but it was private property before the Forest Service was formed.

    I think it would cost the taxpayer far less if they put the fires out quickly and didn’t have to spend so much on having crews camped out and watching the fires burn. Fire can still be used as a managment tool with the right conditions and thinning before burning. Managing our forests by just letting them burn is not very responsible.

  4. Yep. Let it all burn. Let the enviro-whackos burn in their own man-made tree-hugging hell. Let billions upon billions of dollars burn up and add billions of tons of bad stuff to our air.

    Because chinese, venezuelan, canadian, mexican, bolivian, russian and brazillian loggers have to eat too. After all, we know they’ll do a much better job of clear cutting their forests than the good ol’ american worker ever could.

    Oh yeah, how ’bout all them spotted owls and fish we were protecting from loggers? I don’t know for sure, but I hear dying in a fire is a terrible way to go, even if you’re just a cute cripsy critter.

    The road to hell is paved with good intentions, and 2007, 2000, 1994, 1987 were all years of “HELL ON EARTH”.

    BTW, many of those trees you do-gooding assholes let burn were hundreds to thousands of years old.