Don’t Burn Your Future

Jim Petersen's new book packs together 36 years of expert observations about national forest management and mis-management

By Dave Skinner

Here we are, mid-July, about the time to start thinking seriously about what kind of a fire season we’re going to see. As usual, I’m hoping it will be a light one, and so far, 2020 hasn’t been too bad after some spooky incidents in May.

I’ve started my annual ritual of monitoring www.nifc.gov, the National Interagency Fire Center, and companion site Inciweb. As I write this on July 16, nationwide there are about 660,000 acres under “active fire” status, with most being worked by the Southwest and Great Basin command centers (Arizona, New Mexico, Utah, Nevada). In the Rocky Mountain area (Wyoming and Colorado), 481 personnel are working 11 fires on 15,317 acres. In our Northern Rockies, there are three fires on less than three sections worth, with 93 personnel total — most of that is one fire, the Seventy Six fire near Ashland, Montana.

Of course, that’s going to change with the calendar, and it might get frisky, for several reasons.

First, 2020’s long spring was actually pretty good in my view. Good moisture makes trees grow stronger, lets them run more sap to fight bugs, keeps them damp inside so they’re harder to ignite.

But the flip side comes from all that healthy underbrush and grass growing with the trees. There are scads of fine fuels this year, and once they dry out (that’s not an if), they’ll be tinder until they’re wet and cold again. Once ignited, these fine fuels can and will kill perfectly healthy trees.

Second, this virus has us all stir-crazy, poor (or at least thrifty), and needing some cheap fun, properly socially distanced, right? For example, Yellowstone visitation was down 32% in June, but the last 10 days were back to normal.

Here at Glacier, it’s going to be crazy with the east side closed. Everyone is going to funnel through West Glacier in and out, basically double-jamming. What do you do? Go elsewhere of course, meaning the national forest. I’m seeing more people in places I don’t expect — and the fact remains, most wildfires are human-caused.

Third, it’s hard to say if COVID-19 will hurt our ability to actually stand up an effective firefighting force this year. Fires are filthy events, entailing long hours of brutal work for line crews. Further, everyone is camping, not “glamping,” in remote places with minimal amenities. Sure, crews tend to be young and healthy, and there will likely be bigger mess tents and more shower facilities called upon — but — crews from all parts of America are rotated every two weeks.

What will they bring, or take home? Do they quarantine at home? Or will crews be assigned “for the duration” without breaks, which carries the threat of another kind of “burnout?”

So, in the short run, I suggest everyone up their fire-wise game while outdoors. Pack a shovel and rake with all your fun stuff. Make it a point not to have a campfire — bottle gas works. I’d de-emphasize the guns this year, too. Make sure your spark arrester hasn’t rusted out. Keep your trailer chains up. And, if you’re a smoker and like to flick your ashes out the car window, stay the heck home.

In the long run? Even if 2020 is an “easy” fire year, every year after that still has the potential to be an epic disaster, forever, unless policies on public lands see a massive change. What change and why?

Well, that’s explained, in a new book: First, Put Out the Fire!, published this spring by the pro-forestry Evergreen Foundation and written by its founder, Jim Petersen. There are 238 pages, with 100 archival photos (including one of me, I used to work for Jim) and a bunch of scannable QR codes linking to stacks of government-funded data. With that, Jim packs together 36 years of expert observations about national forest management and mis-management into a readable explanation of why today we “are literally burning our future to the ground,” why we shouldn’t, and how we can stop what Jim calls our “wildfire pandemic.”

I bought a copy ($29.95) and borrowing it out has already saved me a lot of explaining.

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