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Forest Fires and National Defense Policy 2022
There seems to be a new twist to the government’s response to the ever growing threat of wildfires. More and more we see an emerging assertion that the citizens should bear the primary responsibility for protecting their homes. The phrase Residential-Forest Inter-Phase is trotted out as if rural folks should feel guilty about where they choose to live. This is wrong. The government’s job is National Defense and should protect everyone equally.
This is not to diminish the benefits of building defensible space and other common sense fire wise protections. However, let’s look at the events of September 9, 2020 as devil winds raced down on Oregon and Northern California pushing wildfires ahead at phenomenal speed. On that horrible day over 2400 homes were destroyed by the Alameda Fire in suburban residential zones in Phoenix and Talent Oregon and fires butted up against the urban areas around Medford. At the same time, during the huge and equally intense Slater Fire, rural residential communities in southern and western Josephine County didn’t lose a single house. Of course many climatic conditions made the two fires not comparable in many ways, but the great loss of homes over in Jackson County occurred because these closely packed subdivisions and mobile home parks caused one structure to set the next alight without any forest responsible for the rapid spread. In the rural residential areas, although homes were built near woodlands, heroic efforts on the part of local fire crews, home owners and neighbors, Greyback contractors and structural fire crews (in big red engines) who came in from Minneapolis MN, Fargo ND, Salt Lake and Portland Airport had enough time, sweat and resources to save every house.
The danger of a fire storm igniting whole subdivisions, far from forests, has shown to be far more devastating than the Rural Residential Inter-Phase. Look no further than Santa Rosa and Napa California or the suburbs around Boulder, Colorado, out on the edge of the prairie, last December(!).
We must relieve the Forest Service of fire fighting. They are unable and unwilling to take on the responsibility of Initial Attack and instead fall back on “learned helplessness”. That is to say they find reasons why initial attack is not possible (too dangerous, not enough resources, too remote, etc.) and that fires are beneficial (too many fires were suppressed, fire is a natural process, climate change is at fault, people should just get out of the way, etc.). Meanwhile we are losing a million acres of forest and half a dozen communities every year. This is unacceptable and unsustainable.
We need a National Wildfire Defense Force. This should be regarded as a branch of the military, with military training, chain of command, rewarding pay and benefits. This force should be Nationwide and treat wildfire, of any kind, anywhere, as an invading enemy that must be stopped as soon as it breaks out. Use should be made of satellite infrared reconnaissance, hundreds of aircraft, ready to scramble at a moment’s notice. Military quality, trucks, dozers and troop carriers need to be stationed throughout the country with thousands of trained fire fighting troops standing by in readiness. Isn’t this what the military does? Isn’t this what we expect for National Defense?
For comparison, the Defense budget is $773 billion now including a “Space Force” (whatever that is) of $24.5 billion. Congress just appropriated $19 billion for immediate military support to Ukraine and the Coast Guard (which is funded by Homeland Security) gets $13.1 billion. Out of the Forest Service budget of $5.7 billion (funded by the Agriculture Dept.), Fire Fighting gets $3.14 billion; or less than one half of one percent of what we spend on National defense. In Forest Service employment, fire fighters start with minimum wage and, as we went into fire season, staffing was 20% below minimum levels. Flipping burgers at McDonalds pays better and is a whole lot safer.
Yes, climate change has presented a whole new level of wild fire dangers. We must meet it with and even stronger defense. Let us not allow the “learned helplessness” of the Forest Service propaganda influence our policies any longer.