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'An unwinnable fight to save clueless people'

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Christine Hoekenga writes that Neal Hitchcock says that the Forest Service has to "borrow money from other programs to cover emergency costs" (HCN, 11/12/07). That's not actually true. The 45 percent of budgeted fire suppression and any "budget overruns" are, if you will, stolen from other programs. They do not get repaid, thus starving the activities that were the "traditional" purvey of this land management agency.

Fire suppression (aka protecting trophy homes and residences placed and maintained with little or no recognition of the fire regime that they're built in) is the tail wagging the dog. We've turned the land-management agencies into de facto structure-fire departments. Money is being spent to protect private homes with no regard to the statutory duties of these federal agencies.

"Wildland Fire Use" is the latest in a round of euphemisms used by the feds to describe what was first established in 1972 as the "Let Burn" policy. After the 1988 Yellowstone fires, the spin doctors came up with "prescribed natural fire." That turned into "Wildland Fire Use" and is now being supplanted by the newest buzz phrase, "Appropriate Management Response." All of these are in response to decades (back to at least the 1930s) of recognition that fire is just another element of Western ecosystems. Although I personally think we give ourselves way too much credit for "years of fire suppression" as a major causal factor in the severity and size of fires we've seen in the past decade, it's clear that we screwed things up with the recommitment to fire suppression after the 1934 fire season and the rise of Smokey Bear as the "war on fire" avatar.

Given that fire has been present for a bazillion years in vegetated lands, the kind of fire occurrence we're seeing is well within the range of variability. Climate cycles have repeatedly led to conditions similar to what we're seeing now - it's just a matter of lining up all of the ducks: drought, older stands of forest ripe for the feasting of co-evolved pine beetles, and the annual cycles of lightning and human ignitions. It's in the midst of this that we're trying, like the "war on drugs," to fight an unwinnable fight to save clueless people from the decisions they make on house siting and design, construction materials and the management of adjacent flammable materials (firewood stacks and the surrounding vegetation). But hey, we're willing to watch the TV coverage and wring our hands while spending billions to attempt suppression and billions more to help folks rebuild in the same settings.

Woody Hesselbarth
Fort Collins, Colorado

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