Firefighting at fault


In his Oct. 17 editor's note, Paul Larmer writes: "Meanwhile, gigantic, uncontrolled fires have become more common than ever, largely driven by shifts in climate. Whether caused by lightning, arsonists or negligent campers, these mega-fires are reshaping the West. Smart managers are learning to use them, letting them burn where they can do some ecological good and fighting them where they threaten towns and subdivisions" (HCN, 10/17/11, "Management by mega-fire").

Like the national firefighting establishment, Larmer is in denial about a major reason Western wildfires are getting larger and more intense: the firefighting itself.

Because of safety (really OSHA) concerns, firefighters back off wildfires in the West's rugged backcountry. They build firelines and then conduct massive "burn out" operations to connect the natural fire to those firelines. This vastly increases the size of fires and has been missed entirely by fire researchers, because data on the size and intensity of wildfires intentionally do not distinguish the area burned by firefighters from the area burned naturally. It is all considered "natural," which is why their research is so often not worth the paper it was written on.

In 2008, northwest California had one of the largest fires in the nation. But over half of the area burned was discretionary suppression fire set by firefighters. These suppression fires regularly burn at higher intensity than natural wildfire, largely because firefighters want it that way: "Make it black" is their battle cry.

Fighting wildfire in the backcountry is dangerous and ineffective. The approach Larmer advocates -- fighting fire aggressively in the front country, and "loose herding" fires in the backcountry -- makes good sense. But the national firefighting bureaucracy will not reform itself. Westerners will have to make that happen.  

Felice Pace
Klamath, California

Tim Baker
Tim Baker Subscriber
Nov 19, 2011 03:13 PM
I realize this is one of Felice's pet subjects for rants, but I have to ask -- how can a firefighter make a backfire or burnout burn at higher intensity than a natural fire?

Fire behavior is controlled by fuel type, fuel load, moisture content, wind and topography -- none of which are under the control of firefighters. The only thing they can control is ignition, which is usually in fairly small areas adjacent to the fire line. They aren't adding fuel or big fans that I'm aware of to make it burn with greater intensity. Indeed, in many cases they are intentionally set to burn against the wind rather than with it in order to have a cooler, more controllable fire near the active line as opposed to the wild fire itself which very often burns with the wind and with greater intensity as a result.

If Felice could point me to some actual data or science supporting his view I'd be happy to read it.
Charlie Hohn
Charlie Hohn
Nov 20, 2011 07:24 AM
also, in many parts of the West, invasive species are spreading that are more flammable, and grow more densely, than native plants. Examples include cheatgrass in the interior West and ripgut brome and mustards in coastal California. These plants often set up a vicious circle - they burn more readily, sooner than the native plants, so they spread fire more frequently. In turn, they also respond to fire more quickly. Some of these new 'ecosystems' can burn every couple of years in areas like chaparral and sagebrush scrub that are adapted to less frequent fires. Meanwhile, in the dry pine forest where fires naturally did occur every few years, brome increases the intensity of these fires which can inhibit the survival or regrowth of the pines.

I often see climate change, bark beetles, fire suppression, or other changes in fire management blamed for the increased fires, and these factors all play a role. Oddly though, I rarely see mention the changes in fire behavior caused by introduced and invasive plants.