Who's burning the forest?


High Country News' recent feature on arson (The Fiery Touch, August 2nd edition) provides a fascinating look into changing attitudes toward citizens who light wildfires without official permission. Wildfire arsonists have gone from something like hero status to criminal status … at least in urbanized areas.

But what interested me more was senior editor Ray Ring’s take on western wildfire issues as expressed in that edition’s Editor’s Note. After walking through and studying all the large fires in Northwest California since 1987, I am in full accord with Ray’s statement that “many Westerners still view wildfires as primarily natural events. But actually, most or all of today's wildfires are either caused by human beings or made worse by human actions.”

Ray goes on to clarify: “two big factors influence how much it (a wildfire) burns. Our dedication to aggressive fire suppression over the past century has allowed an unnatural buildup of fuels on the public lands. And climate change -- driven by our heat-trapping emissions of carbon dioxide and methane -- results in worsening droughts, higher temperatures, insect epidemics and other stresses that make vegetation more prone to burn.”

This is, of course, the current dogma promoted by the huge, powerful and permanent firefighting bureaucracy led by Idaho’s National Interagency Fire Center. It does not square with my personal experience of what is actually taking place in our western forests. Based on that on-the-ground experience, I believe the impact of 90 years of aggressive fire suppression has been seriously overestimated. In much of the West’s backcountry fire suppression has never been effective; consequently its impact on today’s fire behavior is limited there.

The permanent firefighting establishment and federal land management agencies are also in denial about another major reason western fires are getting larger and more intense: There has been a significant change in how wildfires – especially wildfires which burn far from human communities – are typically fought or suppressed. After four 14 firefighters died in the 1994 Canyon Fire and responding to pressure from OSHA, the national firefighting bureaucracy now emphasizes firefighter safety. As it should be, the worst thing a fire suppression commander fears these days is the burning death of a firefighter.

In the rugged and inaccessible western back-country wildfires are now rarely attacked directly. Instead firefighters back off and build firelines far from the natural wildfire. Then they conduct massive burn outs to bridge the huge gap between the natural wildfire and their firelines. These burn-outs are typically and intentionally burned at high intensity – “Make it black” is one of the modern firefighter’s key mantras.

This intense fire in Northwest California’s Marble Mountain Wilderness was ignited intentionally by Forest Service fire managers over the objection of local managers and residents. It killed Old Growth as well as younger forests and triggered accelerated erosion but did nothing to stop the wildfire burning miles away.

In spite of regular requests from environmental activists and local residents, the permanent firefighting bureaucracy refuses to record, map or let the public know how much of the area in a large fire is the natural wildfire and how much is human fire – not arson but the intentional burning ordered by incident commanders. Wildfire researchers in turn treat the firefighting bureaucracy’s data on fire extent and intensity as measures of the natural fires.

In my experience walking and studying fires in Northwest California and Southwest Oregon, however, a significant portion of the area burned in every large fire was burned not by the natural wildfire but by firefighters. Furthermore, the areas burned by firefighters always were burned at higher intensity as compared to the natural fire supposedly being suppressed. Finally, since at least 1977 not one of the really large wildfires that have burned in the Klamath Mountains has been successfully “suppressed" by firefighters. Huge sums of money have been expended but it is only the coming of fall rain and snow that puts out truly large fires burning in the Klamath Backcountry.

The Big Lie perpetrated by the firefighting bureaucracy is that the increase in fire size and intensity is totally the result of past fire suppression and climate change. Apparently the bureaucrats are afraid of what the public will demand should they become aware that the choking and health-destroying smoke they are forced to breath for months on end is in significant part the result of fire command management decisions and not natural wildfire.

But the rural public is waking up … at least in this part of the West. During the 2008 wildfires residents demanded that firefighters take into account health impacts resulting from costly, destructive and ineffective suppression fires set by firefighters. Rural folks here also recognize that firefighters can spend lots of money and create lots of smoke but are incapable of putting the largest fires out.

How many of the wildfires which have burned thousands of homes in recent years are actually not true wildfires but intentional burn-outs and backfires? We don’t know because the bureaucracy refuses to record the data or acknowledge the fires they themselves ignited. That is why few residents in the towns of Hoopa and Willow Creek along the Klamath River know even today that the 1999 fire which threatened their towns was actually set by non-local firefighters who were surprised when the winds shifted as they so often do in these rugged mountains. The natural wildfires making up the Big Bar Fire Complex burned deep in the Trinity Alps Wilderness and never came close to any towns or to the safely distant firelines firefighters created. Like all very large fires in Northwest California it was the coming of fall rain and snow -- not firefighters -- which put those fires out.

Until fire researchers are willing and able to know which portions of a fire incident are true wildfire and which portions are intentionally set suppression fire their conclusions about the changing size and intensity of western wildfires will remain little more than junk science useful for propaganda purposes but not for understanding what is really going on out there.

Felice Pace lives near the mouth of the Klamath River in Northwest California.

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