We keep dousing wildfires with money

by Mitch Friedman

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 around it.

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 burn.

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 president.

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.

But 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.)

In 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.

We can 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.

Taxpayers, rural 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.

Mitch Friedman is a contributor to Writers on the Range, a service of High Country News (hcn.org). He is executive director of Northwest Ecosystem Alliance in Bellingham, Washington.

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