Fire policy in the form of Smokey and the Bandit

  Among the spectacles swirling around Southern California’s recent wildfires, we had now-Gov. Arnold Schwarzenegger, a man who rose from body-building to movie screens and into politics on the principle of self-reliance, beseeching Washington, D.C., to cushion Californians from the toll of the flames.

There was also California's Sen. Dianne Feinstein, a Democrat who rose with the support of many tree-hugging environmentalists, in the Senate chamber holding up a picture of expensive homes among tinder-dry pines, demanding that the Senate pass a law to spend $760 million a year on removing such troublesome vegetation.

So the perfect firestorm of planetary forces -- prolonged drought and global warming, the natural tendencies of chaparral and forest to burn, a big accumulation of fuels, the Santa Ana winds swooping in -- will be followed by the perfect firestorm of political forces.

Property owners who have taken a hit, those who have lost loved ones and friends -- all will look to lay blame. Their targets are plentiful, including developers who built in wrong places, dreamers who bought homes and took inadequate precautions, foresters and loggers who created thickets by dousing too many fires in the past, environmentalists who are seen as obstructing solutions now, politicians who use the fires to push their own agendas, governments on all levels that will never be able to do enough, and the firefighters themselves, whose tactics can never be perfect in the heat of battle.

One desire that most will have in common, though, is for the war against wildfires to continue. It’s a war that began in the American West more than a century ago and still rages today, despite pretenses of reform, despite reams of evidence that fires are essential in the rhythm of nature.

By now, most should know that wildfire is, for the most part, natural and impossible to suppress. Yet we seem incapable of disengaging from our war against it. We have built the world’s largest firefighting force, an army of many thousands, equipped with helicopters and planes. We’ve had a sixfold increase in federal spending against wildfires since 1991, up to $2.3.billion this year and a planned $2.9.billion next year. Our National Fire Plan seeks not only to fight almost all wildfires but also to reduce the fuels over hundreds of millions of acres by thinning, pruning, raking and other mechanical treatments. The thinning is touted as reform but really it is more war, in the sense that fire is still cast as the enemy.

If this were a Hollywood movie, it would be a sequel, or worse, a tired series. Fire policy in the form of Smokey and the Bandit #18 -- the series in which Smokey the Cop, equipped with shiny cruiser, flashing lights and siren, endlessly pursues the fast-driving, accident-prone, devil-may-care trickster around the landscape. Only in real life, the victims are not stuntmen who bounce back.

Despite so many years of chasing bandit flames, we continue to fall short of capturing or taming them. The congressional and White House programs to thin forests and fuels will likely also fall short. We'll never be able to cut down or prune enough trees or clean up enough brush, year after year after year, to control the growth of fuels and outbreak of wildfires, especially in Southern California’s fast-growing, steep-sloped chaparral.

We can accomplish other, limited goals -- creating jobs, temporarily saving some neighborhoods here and there, re-electing politicians who run for the war or against it -- but the impact on fire rhythms and behavior will be small. And glorified yard work will never replace the many roles of fire in the ecosystem.

There are ways we could break out of this Smokey and the Bandit scenario. We could act like grownups instead of like teenagers, expect the people who adopt risky lifestyles in fire zones to take responsibility for the choice they’re making. We could end the long list of subsidies that includes road extensions, fire crews, thinning crews, insurance rates that don’t reflect the specific risk, even federally backed fire-zone mortgages. We could get more realistic with regulations on how the fire zone is built in and landscaped.

And we could accept wildfires, requiring more prescribed burns and allowing more lightning-ignited blazes to burn themselves out, which means more smoke and inconvenience in our neighborhoods, as the seasonal price of living in the West.

If we don’t do that, we’re stuck in sequel after sequel.

Ray Ring is a contributor to Writers on the Range, a service of High Country News ( He is field editor for the paper in Bozeman, Montana.

Note: the opinions expressed in this column are those of the writer and do not necessarily reflect those of High Country News, its board or staff. If you'd like to share an opinion piece of your own, please write Betsy Marston at