Judged solely by headlines and political rhetoric, summer in the West has become a war zone of wildfire.
The image is no longer of family picnics at the
lake. The lake is busy filling giant buckets dangling from
helicopters, which dump their taxpayer-funded loads onto fires that
could not care less. One critic remarks that the Forest Service has
become the Fire Service. Since 1991, federal fire spending has
increased sixfold to $3 billion.
I have witnessed the way
fires burn money in a remote pocket of Washington State. Crews
bulldozed and clearcut a continuous strip, five miles long and 100
feet wide through the Loomis State Forest, in an effort to head off
a fire. As a close friend of the Loomis Forest, I feel its pain. I
spent most of 1998 and 1999 working to raise $16.5 million -- much
of it from the beneficiaries of Seattle"s high-tech boom -- to save
that forest from logging. Now I’m watching bulldozers rip
through those trees.
The Farewell Fire threatening the
Loomis was the biggest in Washington since 1994. It burned about
80,000 acres of designated wilderness this July before a weather
change allowed firefighters with hand equipment to get a line
For thousands of years, nature has chosen
drought years like this to bring massive fires to mountain forests
like the Loomis. It’s nature"s way of renewing forests that
become weak and prone to insect attack after a century or two. As
the giant Yellowstone fires of 1988 demonstrated, when temperature
and wind conditions are right, a fire will burn no matter what we
throw in its path, jumping with ease our fire breaks and back
burns. As with Yellowstone, the acres burned by the Farwell Fire
will become beautiful, providing habitat for foraging lynx and bear
in less than a decade.
But none of that mattered when I
visited the Loomis Forest in early August. It was swarming with
machines of every sort and firefighters in yellow and green. Many
were local contractors wearing big smiles: Fire-fighting has become
a rural gravy train. I think there is better value to be had for
our tax dollars than pouring all that money on fires, or bulldozing
our way through sensitive, high-elevation forests that would rather
We could be spending a lot more to create
fire-defense zones around homes and communities. Federal grants
would help rural homeowners replace flammable roofs with metal ones
and clear brush within 200 feet of buildings. Residents need help
thinning nearby thickets of small trees and brush. Research
demonstrates this is the surest approach to saving lives and
property in thousands of wooded communities. Yet grants for
community defense remain the unloved stepchild of Congress and the
The Farewell Fire started just north of the
town of Winthrop, Wash. There, enlightened Forest Service officials
had been working for several years to thin out and burn off
excessive fuels in dry forests near town. The buffer worked,
limiting the fire to a northward spread into wilderness.
The intent in marring the Loomis Forest was to stop the fire from
spreading east into the quiet orchard town of Loomis, another 13
miles to the southeast, and 4,000 feet lower. This ate up some
portion of the $350 million spent fighting the fire.
Loomis already has its buffer of irrigated fields and foothills. A
small, one-time investment in metal roofs and brush-clearing would
have added -- at no cost -- further security to the town against
almost any wildfire scenario. (It took a federal grant of only
$340,000 in 2001 to almost complete a protection zone around
Roslyn, Washington"s best example of doing it right.)
the absence of fiscal constraint, agencies this summer chose to
spend mightily on men with machines. Elite hot-shot firefighters
increasingly wonder why they’re deployed -- at great risk --
into fires that should be allowed to burn. A Canadian official
remarked that the money spent on the Farewell Fire alone is as much
as British Columbia -- larger than Washington, Oregon and
California combined -- spends in total on wildfire.
expect more of the same if President Bush succeeds in pushing his
so-called Healthy Forest Initiative through Congress, where it
awaits a Senate vote. The main thrust of Bush’s wildfire
doctrine is neither fiscal restraint nor resources to communities.
Instead, it removes environmental safeguards and public oversight
from logging contracts. It subsidizes logging as though we can
eliminate fire by removing the forest.
homeowners, and conservationists would all be better served if we
focused our efforts on community protection. The fire, of course,
couldn’t care less.
When it’s hot and dry, the
West will always burn.