Who's burning the forest?


High Country News' recent feature on arson (The Fiery Touch, August 2nd edition) provides a fascinating look into changing attitudes toward citizens who light wildfires without official permission. Wildfire arsonists have gone from something like hero status to criminal status … at least in urbanized areas.

But what interested me more was senior editor Ray Ring’s take on western wildfire issues as expressed in that edition’s Editor’s Note. After walking through and studying all the large fires in Northwest California since 1987, I am in full accord with Ray’s statement that “many Westerners still view wildfires as primarily natural events. But actually, most or all of today's wildfires are either caused by human beings or made worse by human actions.”

Ray goes on to clarify: “two big factors influence how much it (a wildfire) burns. Our dedication to aggressive fire suppression over the past century has allowed an unnatural buildup of fuels on the public lands. And climate change -- driven by our heat-trapping emissions of carbon dioxide and methane -- results in worsening droughts, higher temperatures, insect epidemics and other stresses that make vegetation more prone to burn.”

This is, of course, the current dogma promoted by the huge, powerful and permanent firefighting bureaucracy led by Idaho’s National Interagency Fire Center. It does not square with my personal experience of what is actually taking place in our western forests. Based on that on-the-ground experience, I believe the impact of 90 years of aggressive fire suppression has been seriously overestimated. In much of the West’s backcountry fire suppression has never been effective; consequently its impact on today’s fire behavior is limited there.

The permanent firefighting establishment and federal land management agencies are also in denial about another major reason western fires are getting larger and more intense: There has been a significant change in how wildfires – especially wildfires which burn far from human communities – are typically fought or suppressed. After four 14 firefighters died in the 1994 Canyon Fire and responding to pressure from OSHA, the national firefighting bureaucracy now emphasizes firefighter safety. As it should be, the worst thing a fire suppression commander fears these days is the burning death of a firefighter.

In the rugged and inaccessible western back-country wildfires are now rarely attacked directly. Instead firefighters back off and build firelines far from the natural wildfire. Then they conduct massive burn outs to bridge the huge gap between the natural wildfire and their firelines. These burn-outs are typically and intentionally burned at high intensity – “Make it black” is one of the modern firefighter’s key mantras.

This intense fire in Northwest California’s Marble Mountain Wilderness was ignited intentionally by Forest Service fire managers over the objection of local managers and residents. It killed Old Growth as well as younger forests and triggered accelerated erosion but did nothing to stop the wildfire burning miles away.

In spite of regular requests from environmental activists and local residents, the permanent firefighting bureaucracy refuses to record, map or let the public know how much of the area in a large fire is the natural wildfire and how much is human fire – not arson but the intentional burning ordered by incident commanders. Wildfire researchers in turn treat the firefighting bureaucracy’s data on fire extent and intensity as measures of the natural fires.

In my experience walking and studying fires in Northwest California and Southwest Oregon, however, a significant portion of the area burned in every large fire was burned not by the natural wildfire but by firefighters. Furthermore, the areas burned by firefighters always were burned at higher intensity as compared to the natural fire supposedly being suppressed. Finally, since at least 1977 not one of the really large wildfires that have burned in the Klamath Mountains has been successfully “suppressed" by firefighters. Huge sums of money have been expended but it is only the coming of fall rain and snow that puts out truly large fires burning in the Klamath Backcountry.

The Big Lie perpetrated by the firefighting bureaucracy is that the increase in fire size and intensity is totally the result of past fire suppression and climate change. Apparently the bureaucrats are afraid of what the public will demand should they become aware that the choking and health-destroying smoke they are forced to breath for months on end is in significant part the result of fire command management decisions and not natural wildfire.

But the rural public is waking up … at least in this part of the West. During the 2008 wildfires residents demanded that firefighters take into account health impacts resulting from costly, destructive and ineffective suppression fires set by firefighters. Rural folks here also recognize that firefighters can spend lots of money and create lots of smoke but are incapable of putting the largest fires out.

How many of the wildfires which have burned thousands of homes in recent years are actually not true wildfires but intentional burn-outs and backfires? We don’t know because the bureaucracy refuses to record the data or acknowledge the fires they themselves ignited. That is why few residents in the towns of Hoopa and Willow Creek along the Klamath River know even today that the 1999 fire which threatened their towns was actually set by non-local firefighters who were surprised when the winds shifted as they so often do in these rugged mountains. The natural wildfires making up the Big Bar Fire Complex burned deep in the Trinity Alps Wilderness and never came close to any towns or to the safely distant firelines firefighters created. Like all very large fires in Northwest California it was the coming of fall rain and snow -- not firefighters -- which put those fires out.

Until fire researchers are willing and able to know which portions of a fire incident are true wildfire and which portions are intentionally set suppression fire their conclusions about the changing size and intensity of western wildfires will remain little more than junk science useful for propaganda purposes but not for understanding what is really going on out there.

Felice Pace lives near the mouth of the Klamath River in Northwest California.

A few counterpoints:
Aug 09, 2010 05:25 PM
A few points I'd like to make:

- The 1994 South Canyon fire resulted in 14 firefighter fatalities, not four.

- The Forest Service has emphasized firefighter safety over aggressive fire line tactics since the 1949 Mann Gulch fire when 13 firefighters died, not just since 1994. It was a large part of the training I had back in the 70's and 80's when I worked for the USFS in wildland fire in the west.

- Much of the difficulty in fighting fire today is the expansion of the wildland-urban interface (WUI) where there is more personal property in the way of wildfires. This has increased the stress level and the risks associated with trying to control or contain wildland fires.

- Indirect fire-line tactics, particularly in rough country, are the only reasonable means of trying to control most large wildland fires. You can't just walk up to fire and spray water on it for the most part nor can you dig a fire line right next to hot fires.

- Burning out (or backfiring) has long been accepted as a method of increasing the strength of the fire line. There's simply no other practicable method for trying to control large scale wildland fires.

- Suppression activities have always been most successful on smaller and cool-season fires -- the ones most likely to have been beneficial in reducing fuel loading without high fire intensity. It has been these fires that we've been really good at putting out in the past 100 years and it's this suppression that is widely accepted as resulting in fuel buildups.

- In the complex mix of ecosystems, fuel types and loading, weather patterns and fire history and return periods, there's simply no way to support the overly broad generalizations that Mr. Pace makes concerning fire suppression as the cause of larger burn areas. Just for a counterpoint, read about the Canyon Creek fire in 1988 in Montana that was allowed to burn. The original decision was probably sound in that case but as they say, 'Mother Nature bats last' and the fire then blew up in one of the most spectacular displays since the 1910 Big Burn.

- Finally, let's be clear about the options. If you are an incident commander, crew leader, or similar manager and you make decisions that place your crew in danger, you become liable. Are you willing to take on that responsibility when aggressively attacking wildland fire which has numerous inherent risks? It's easy to second guess and armchair quarterback decisions, but if it's not your rear end on the line, you really don't have too loud a voice. The only other option to aggressive (and both personally and ecologically damaging suppression) is to simply let them all burn as they will. I'd buy into it, but would your rural western neighbors mind if their houses burned up? I'm guessing they would.
To be expected
Felice Pace
Felice Pace
Aug 09, 2010 07:46 PM
I fully expected attacks from the firefighting bureaucrats who would rather attack the messenger than grapple with the message. I will not burden readers by responding to the points which were not really related to what I actually wrote. I agree with a couple of these points anyway.

I do however want to:

1. Apologize for the typo; yes, it was fourteen firefighters who died in the canyon fire, not four.

2. Point out that, contrary to what the commenter asserts at the end, "let it burn" and "aggressive (and both personally and ecologically damaging) suppression" are NOT the only options. Another option is to aggressively attack and suppress wildfires in the front country (near homes and communities)while "loose herding" (a term I learned from firefighters) wildfires in the back country.

Until we force the firefighting establishment to disclose which portions of fire areas were natural fire and which portions were burned by humans as part of "suppression" none of us will have the true picture.
You Still Fail At Argument
Aug 10, 2010 08:13 AM
You continue to obfuscate, and have not come close to providing a real argument. Your reply is only a deflection of what only amounts to a published rant, with zero credibility. Why HCN continue to publish such rubish is the reason I no longer subsribe.
A clarification, if you will.
Aug 10, 2010 11:15 AM
I didn't attack you (the messenger) at all, near as I can tell. I simply pointed out some problems I had with your message that attributes an increase in acreage burned and houses lost to burning out by firefighters. Firefighters have long used backfires to strengthen firelines; this isn't a new technique and as a broad generalization they tend to use it ways that reduce risk, not increase it as you suggest.

Additionally, it would be difficult for firefighters to intentionally cause a backfire to burn hotter than a natural fire would given the same fuel, topography and weather conditions. And, at least initially, I was going to forgo commenting on your ability to discern, post hoc, what was burned by backfires and what was burned by the main fire -- I'd be really surprised if you could reliably do that without actually being there to see the fires set and watch them burn.

Finally, I'm not a wildland fire bureaucrat; I haven't worked for the feds in over 20 years. Instead, I'm an ecologist who has studied wildland fire in a number of ecosystems and realizes that when it comes to fire, oversimplification is easy and generally wrong. Which seemed to be what you were doing in your initial opinion piece.

By the way, I don't disagree with the idea that it would be good to have the information on how different parts of the fire burn. Wildland fire has always burned in a mosaic pattern with different levels of intensity and trying to adequately and reasonably map boundaries is always going to be a little misleading because of the inclusion of unburned areas within the boundaries. We're getting closer with improving technology but there are still real limits to gathering that kind of information in real time on the ground.
Intentional Obfuscation?
Aug 09, 2010 06:32 PM
Right in the paragraph suggesting denial about fires burning far from communities the author brings up the "Canyon" Fire where "4" firefighters died. There were 14 fatalities on the South Canyon Fire, and the fire was fought within sight of several communities. The author claims extensive study, but his rant betrays othrwise. Both the South Canyon Fire and the Thirtymile Fire (2001, 4 lives lost) were lightning caused, which Mr. Pace conveniently neglects to mention. He also fails, quite spectacularly, to make a point, and back it up with any real research. It's obvious the propaganda, and junk science he speaks of belongs to him, and him only.
Humans have always set most fires
Andy Stahl
Andy Stahl
Aug 12, 2010 02:25 PM
It is more likely than not that humans have been a major source of wildland fire ignitions for millenia. Native American genocide greatly reduced human-caused ignitions and 19th century livestock grazing likely reduced fire spread in the west.

For further explication, see MacCleery, D. <a href="http://www.fs.fed.us/eco/eco-watch/ew940210.htm" "Is There a Landscape Archaeologist in the House?"</a>

Ken -- The Thirtymile Fire was an escaped campfire, not lightning.