Fire suppression a flawed strategyOver much of the West this summer, the U.S. Forest Service has been going after forest fires that in previous years would have been allowed to burn naturally and go out on their own. The policy reversal was announced earlier this summer, and has become highly visible in a number of western states.
By: Bernie Kuntz, The Jamestown Sun
Over much of the West this summer, the U.S. Forest Service has been going after forest fires that in previous years would have been allowed to burn naturally and go out on their own. The policy reversal was announced earlier this summer, and has become highly visible in a number of western states.
The Forest Service’s new approach to fight all fires — even in wilderness areas — operates under the premise that stopping them early will preserve firefighting budgets, which consume about half the agency’s annual appropriation.
A huge problem in the West exists because of people building houses too close to timber, or as the forestry professionals call it — along the “urban interface.” These are many of the same people who object to any kind of logging for thinning purposes, and many of them also object to controlled burns.
Note the terrible Colorado fires this summer, where more than 400 homes burned. As I write this, fires are raging in Idaho, Washington state and California. Another fire is burning in the Gila Wilderness of New Mexico, and several have burned in Montana’s Bob Marshall Wilderness.
In yesterday’s Bozeman Daily-Chronicle is a picture of a palatial home near Cle Elum, Wash., that is surrounded by an enormous forest fire. However, if one looks at the picture closely, you can see that the house has a defensible space surrounding it, including placement of the driveway and lack of trees and brush in that open space. The house survived intact because the owner had taken those steps!
Western states have a serious timber problem where logging has been suppressed for decades, beetle-killed trees can be found by the millions, and fuel accumulations in national forests makes for a tinder box with the dry, hot conditions.
My friend Randy, an avid hunter who lives a few miles from me in Bozeman, writes: “Looking out my front steps, I see the Gallatin Face. It has had fire suppression for the 20-plus years I have lived here. Controlled burns are hardly ever allowed, as some close to the forest complain about air quality or aesthetics. Many refuse to clear their areas of large trees, as they came to Montana to live in the forest.”
Randy could have mentioned the Gallatin Canyon too — a 35-mile long steep, heavily timbered gorge stretching from the Gallatin Valley to Big Sky, and full of elegant homes built in or very near the timber. I have been through the canyon hundreds of times, and often near the Storm Castle in the middle of the canyon, the wind is blowing. One day a fire is going to burn out-of-control in that canyon and it is going to be a daunting event.
Part of the misunderstanding with the general public is that the average guy on the street believes that any fire is bad. The U.S. Forest Service and “Smoky the Bear” did a great job brain-washing the public for half a century or more. Yet, forests were burning long before Lewis and Clark ventured into the West, and certainly they will burn long after we are gone.
Just as the public needs to understand that it is foolish to build houses on a flood plain, it is just as insane to build a house right up against a forest that has burned periodically for hundreds of years. It is even crazier for the U.S. Forest Service to foster such actions through its fire suppression programs.
Bernie Kuntz, a Jamestown native, has been an Outdoors columnist for the Sun since 1974