“Good Fire” – “Bad Fire” : Opinion by Robert Hirning

People often ask, why doesn’t the Forest Service put the fires out when they start? That is a fair question, but once some small, individual lightning strikes combine to become a monster mega-fire the Daily Briefings always seem to avoid the subject. If pressed on initial attack the stock answer is always “too steep and too rough” or “climate change has made it so much harder.”
Stock answers like these skirt the real reasons why the Forest Service has given up on initial attack and the public needs to understand what is going on behind the scenes requiring the long grind towards containment. This brings us to the subject of “good fire” and “bad fire”. The FS considers “good fire” as an event that is primarily good for the Forest Service itself and also good for the forest (sometimes). The public does not enter into the equation. Let’s look into the subject of good and bad fires and understand what is at stake.
The fire managers see “good fire” as a low intensity blaze that stays on the ground and, with luck, behaves like a prescribed burn. The idea is to mimic periodic wildfires which consume litter and brush while leaving the larger trees intact. This is the plan when performing planned prescribed burns, when that activity is done deliberately and when weather forecasts of humidity, wind and rain are predicted. Specific forest areas are chosen for this purpose of a prescribed burn to minimize negative impact. Deliberately letting wild fires spread for this purpose is foolhardy.
In aboriginal times old growth forests needed periodic ground fire and this made sense to the native people who managed them for centuries. However what we have today is not an aboriginal forest nor do we have anything like the former climate. The National Forest was penetrated by a honeycomb of clear-cuts, roads, landings, cut-banks and skid trails over a thirty year period from the mid 1960s through the 1980s leaving only 20-25% untouched. This has grown back in a super flammable mess of brush, old slash and overstocked/even aged regrowth. The idea was to create a sustainable supply of timber with periodic pre-commercial thinning and easy access on the vast (taxpayer funded) road system. That is not what happened.
The roads never were maintained and became impassable; most of the units were never thinned or came back as brush fields, and the little thinning that was done left the cut trees on the ground to add to the already existing slash. These are now the same forest managers who claim that “we put out too many fires in the past”. For shame, burning it all up and starting over will lead to the same result: no forests for future generations, just a mosaic of periodic fires and fire scars that will never return to a healthy ecosystem.
So what we have now mostly is “bad fire” and the blame falls squarely on the top managers of Forest Service policies. We are now looking at a million acres and half a dozen lost communities every year due to misguided policies. Each mega-fire can cost tens, even hundreds of millions, of dollars, most of it going to the private contractors who provide all the services from helicopters to food delivery to trucks and hot shot crews. (There is plenty of room for lobbying here and mischief, too.) This is not sustainable nor is it in the public interest either. Beyond the loss of tomorrows timber and huge outlays of tax payer dollars, consider the human cost to local economies that depend on tourism and retirement. Consider the health risks to placing tens of thousands of people in hazardous smoky air for weeks on end every year or just the anxiety and disrupted lives with Level II and III evacuation warnings.
Shamefully the Forest Service managers are literally playing with fire and need to be relieved from that responsibility. The public should demand a National Wild Fire Defense Force, similar in military structure to the Coast Guard that would have authority over wild fire on all federal lands including not only forests but also tropical savanna, prairie and grass lands. There should also be a reinstitution of a “Closest Forces” agreement with State and local fire departments.
If we are going to spend $19 on a “Space Force” (whatever that is) we should certainly spend big money on wildfire defense. Envision a Barracks and mess hall established at every small airport, with a permanent force of highly trained fire fighters including smokejumpers, helatack, and suppression hot shots who are all familiar with the district in which they are assigned. Furthermore, these mini- bases should be assigned dozers on lowboys, masticators and other heavy equipment. Locating these bases at small airports will also have the advantage of permanently maintaining a couple of single engine tankers (SEATS), a chopper or two with buckets and a Twin Otter, Casa, Dornier, Sherpa, or similar type of fixed-wing aircraft for the smokejumpers. Of course, the base would need ancillary fuel, retardant, hand tools, hoses and other firefighting equipment. Also needed would be ground personnel to monitor radio and satellite data as well as cooks, food deliveries and ground transportation. All fire fighters would be employed directly by the Defense Department with suitable pay and benefits including retirement as well as intensive training appropriate to their rank and job assignment. All equipment would also be property of the U.S. Government just like fighter planes or tanks are in the warfare military.
Contracting out fire control was the single biggest mistake the Forest Service has made. It led to a wildfire industry with vested interest in bigger fires with more money going to private hands. This recipe for corruption is just too obvious. The actual number of Forest service employees is now less than half of what it was 50 years ago and almost all fire fighting, including aircraft, heavy equipment and almost all personnel, are contracted. Funds are released on and emergency appropriation basis so the true costs are never known. Deduct this all from this proposed Defense Force budget and maintaining 500 to 1000 fixed local bases begins to make sense. Add to this the loss of lives, homes and property, loss of valuable timber, tourism in local economies plus health issues from smoke, then creating an initial attack force as the highest priority is a no brainer.
In conclusion, there is no “Good Fire” during fire season. All lightning strikes must be aggressively attacked to stop mega-fires from growing in the first place. What is going on now is a combination of incompetence (“we don’t have the resources”) and deliberate let it burn excuses (“too steep and too rough”) and has got to stop. We were able to go for generations in the past without mega-fires, now it is a regular occurrence every summer. Climate change has only made it worse. The public needs to understand what is really going on and demand a change.