Blowing Smoke: The Fire Blame Game

By Beacon Staff

Here comes fire season, along with plenty of toxic political smoke. In the last couple of weeks, the Idaho Statesman and Los Angeles Times have produced serial articles about the “wildfire problem,” and of course “solutions,” plus various advocates have started churning out their “fire is good and natural” press releases and op-eds.

Overall, the combined slant is: Fighting fire is expensive, therefore don’t fight fires so hard, let fires generally have their way across the landscape, especially in the “backcountry.” Don’t let people build homes on forested ground, and don’t bother directly defending them from fire. Logging? Forget it. After all, once everything gets toasted good, the world will be perfect.

So, should we back off? No.

In much of America, not just on U.S. Forest Service lands, the “condition class” of vegetation in terms of density and composition are nowhere near historic levels. There’s a neat map at http://www.frcc.gov/ that pretty much gives the picture. We can expect that many fires are not going to be “good fires.” They’ll be forest killers.

In the right conditions, fire is great stuff, a wonderful tool. I’ve been on Indian reservations where loggers and fire crews cycle together back and forth across the ground. The results are fantabulous.

But in the wrong conditions, fire is, as George Washington said, a fearful master. And the sick fact is, there’s a lot of flaming red on that FRCC map.

The difference between good, rejuvenative fires and bad, destructive fires is the amount and structure of the fuel available. And fuel availability can be managed. How? Remove the fuel, either by deliberate burning at the right times of year, or by, um, er, logging. Do you use a whole can of starter fluid to start the barbecue? Of course not.

What about homes in the woods? Are they so wrong? Those who constantly quote Henry Thoreau’s “in Wilderness is the preservation of the World” need to remember Walden Pond was written at his family’s woods shack. He felt at home in the woods, and I think that’s okay for people today.

The current conventional wisdom that forest homes are a burden on fire managers is completely misguided. Epic battles to save homes are almost always because a monster fire roars out of, you betcha, the “backcountry” where the sucker built up a head of steam, usually in unmanaged fuels, before crews could get to it.

So to prevent the loss of those homes, the pundits recommend “Firewise” treatments. I agree, with the risk of a giant fire escaping the “backcountry” and running through your front yard, it’s the only chance you have.

But let’s assume you are Firewise already, with your metal roof, giant water tank and sprinklers, slicked off 150-foot buffer, your neighbors did everything right, and your neighborhood is bombproof.

So the bomb DOES go off. The smoke clears, and there you are on your patio, admiring your new view, waving at your neighbors standing on their tiny patches of green amid miles and miles of ashy black. Perfect? Perhaps to readers of the “Blackback Woodpecker Lover’s Journal.”

Right now, the Forest Service burns down almost half its budget during eight weeks of fire season, leaving little for doing anything useful the other ten months of the year. This is utterly dysfunctional, as is proven by the simple fact that since 2000, 700,000 acres have burnt on the 2.2 million acre Flathead National Forest alone. Logging that ground that fast would be unethical, right? Allowing it to burn is equally unethical – and to deceptively heap blame on rural residents for the “fire problem” is, in turn, criminal.

We must keep on fighting fires in summer, but must also manage them the rest of the year not only in the politically-correct “interface” frontcountry, but also in the backcountry. Systematic harvesting and processing of wood into useful products would finance programs for induced fires in the shoulder seasons, as well as help finance the inevitably-reduced costs of fighting those fires that do get out of hand.

Why don’t we? Ask your congressman.

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