Fire and Smoke


Back in June of this year I did a GOAT Blog post on the wildfires that burned during the summer of 2008 in Northwest California. In October of 2008 I posted a commentary on reasons why western wildfires are getting larger. Included in the June report was the controversy that arose in Northwest California last year over smoke-related health impacts and whether decisions not to directly attack the wildfires and firefighter lit backfires and burnouts added significantly and unnecessarily to those health impacts. In 2008 about one third of the billion dollars spent nationally on firefighting was expended in Northwest California.

The Redding Record Searchlight did a series on the 2008 fires which focused on smoke and firefighting tactics. They have continued to follow-up on the series this year.

Health officials working for the Hoopa Tribe are leading efforts to get Forest Service and firefighters to give greater consideration to the health impacts of smoke as they make decisions on fire suppression strategy and tactics. However, it is unknown how much of the smoke which blanketed Northwest California last summer was the result of natural wildfires and how much was the result of the extensive backfires and burnouts which firefighters lit. The Forest Service and the firefighting bureaucracy continue to refuse to distinguish natural wildfires from discretionary backfires and burnouts when they map and report of wildland fires. Forest Service and university researchers have not helped; I can find no studies that look at this aspect of the smoke issue.

Westerners don’t know how much of the health-destroying smoke we breathe during wildfires is the result of natural wildfires and how much is the result of decisions to light backfires and burnouts. Likewise, it is unknown how much of the documented increase in the size of western wildfires is the legacy of fire suppression and logging and how much of that increase represents increased use of backfires and burnouts.  Many folks like me who live in the forest and study the wildfires on the ground are convinced that the backfires and burnouts are getting larger. In last year’s Northern California Siskiyou Fire Complex, for example, well over 50% of the total area burned was the result of management decisions to light backfires and burnouts far from the actual wildfires. Yet the Forest Service and fire researchers continue to describe the entire area as if it was an all natural fire.

Now we are in a new fire season and I can report that the Forest Service is responding to the sustained criticism of how the summer 2008 fires were managed. This has been reported extensively in area media.

Most Northwest California residents appear to be pleased that the Forest Service directly attacked and – with the help of cool weather and moist fuel - was able to put out this year’s Backbone Fire in the Trinity Alps Wilderness. Controversy remains, however, concerning how much of last year’s smoke is the result of decisions not to directly attack the fires (for firefighter safety) and how much is the result of firefighting strategies that rely on large burnouts and backfires. 

Also under dispute in Northwest California are causes of the watershed impacts that result from wildfire and fire suppression. The Redding Searchlight, for example, claimed in a recent editorial that one of last years wildfires destroyed important salmon habitat.       

While it is clear that wildfires can have significant negative impacts on water quality (particularly when the fires burn at high intensity), it is unknown how much of the sediment Record Searchlight editors believe resulted from “natural” wildfire was actually from firefighter lit burnouts and bulldozed fire lines. Even more difficult to determine is whether fire suppression strategy and tactics used on that fire were needed and appropriate.

Answers to these questions will remain illusive until fire researchers begin to seriously investigate the impacts of fire suppression strategies and tactics as part of natural history-type investigations of wildfires. Such investigations, however, will be difficult to complete until the Forest Service and Fire Fighting Bureaucracy begin to map and disclose burnouts and backfires.   

High Country News Classifieds