A long plume of red smoke covered the sun as I drove back from Gunnison, Colorado on Sunday afternoon. The East Coal Creek Fire, started by lightning two days earlier, had torched 100 acres of Douglas fir by the end of the weekend. As it grew, it headed deeper into the West Elk Wilderness, away from the road and the few homes in the area.
In other summers, a fire like this one—small and remote—might have been allowed to burn. After all, in recent years the Forest Service has placed a greater emphasis on restoring fire to Western forests (although the agency hasn’t been able to treat enough land to make much of a difference, as we reported last fall in our feature "A Burning Problem”).
But this summer, the agency isn’t taking any chances. It’s already been an expensive and destructive fire season, especially here in Colorado, and the Forest Service has less money to fight fires than it would like. So crews are attacking the East Coal Creek Fire with a full suppression strategy (helicopters, airplanes, hotshot crews) while it’s still small, hoping to snuff it out before it can grow into a bigger and more costly conflagration. The same is true on Forest Service lands across the nation.
Chris Barth, a spokesman for the Montrose Interagency Fire Unit, said the agency wasn’t responding to this particular fire any differently than they would at any other time. But he said “there has been an effort across the country to get on fires quickly and put them out without any other options being explored.”
The emphasis on stomping out fires comes from James Hubbard, the national deputy chief for state and private forestry. He outlined the change in a May 25 memo (comments in the margins not by HCN).
“In recent years we have placed increasing emphasis on suppression strategies to meet restoration objectives—recognizing wildland fire as an essential ecological process and natural change agent. Given the unique circumstances we face in 2012 I expect Regional Forester approval of any suppression strategy that includes restoration objectives. I acknowledge this is not a desirable approach in the long-run.”
It’s hard to tell how big a deal this requirement for higher-level approval really is.
In an interview with the Helena Independent Record, a Washington Forest Service spokesman, Joe Walsh, said the memo “isn’t a change in policy.” Small fires may still be allowed to burn, but a regional supervisor must make that decision, not a lower-level supervisor like an incident commander or local land manager. A regional forester, he said, “just has a better idea of what’s going on strategically and what (firefighting) resources are available.” (Interestingly, the National Park Service and the Bureau of Land Management have not adopted the Forest Service's directive).
But Jennifer Jones, spokeswoman for the National Interagency Fire Center, said it was unlikely many fires would be allowed to burn “given current fiscal constraints.” And Brenda Halter, the Superior National Forest supervisor in Minnesota, told the Duluth News Tribune the change was “a national directive that means we’re going to be much more aggressively suppressing wildfires in wilderness.”
That appears to be happening in the northern Rockies. In an article for OnEarth, Richard Manning found that of the 28 naturally-caused wildfires burning in wilderness areas in Region One this year, all were being suppressed.
Andy Stahl, executive director of Forest Service Employees for Environmental Ethics, says bumping the decision to a regional forester just decreases the chance a fire will be allowed to burn.
“This takes what was an operational-level decision and makes it into a political-level decision,” he said.
Although the Forest Service said the directive is temporary and will likely be suspended come winter, Manning’s article makes it seem like the decision is a complete reversal of the 1995 federal fire policy that made restoration of wildland fire a national priority. He argues that the conditions that led to the temporary change—hot, dry weather and budget shortfalls—aren’t likely to go away anytime soon, suggesting the fire suppression policy might stick around, too.
Stahl thinks so, too.
“Things like this have a tendency to become indelible,” he said. In order to reverse the policy next season, he thinks the Forest Service will have to make the case that budget and weather conditions are significantly different than this year—something he worries might not happen.
But 2013 isn’t an election year, so hopefully politics won’t play a role in that decision—something Sharon Friedman, a retired Forest Service planner who blogs about forest policy, worried influenced this spring's directive.
Maybe “the Executive Branch folks told the FS to be conservative on fires that might get out of control and provide campaign fodder,” she wrote in her blog. “Just sayin’ FS fire folks don’t work in a vacuum.”
Even if the Forest Service maintains the directive going forward, the agency probably won’t have the resources to jump on every fire during a bad year, meaning some fires will just burn, says Greg Aplet, a forester with the Wilderness Society.
Even so, he said the temporary change was a bad sign for anyone “looking to push fire management in a new and ecologically enlightened direction.”
Hopefully by the next fire season the Forest Service will be willing to accept the political risk (and ecological gains) of letting it burn.
Emily Guerin is an intern at High Country News.
Instagram photo of East Coal Creek Fire courtesy Andrew Cullen