Smokey's secret is out


Dear HCN,

With veiled amusement I read Louise Wagenknecht's essay, "The year it rained money," (HCN, 5/7/01: The year it rained money). You did it now, Louise. The cat's out of the bag. Heaven forbid the American public should understand what those of us in the fire-suppression game have known forever, but do not like to admit. That wildfire management is driven by lots of people making and spending lots of money.

I was also on last summer's Clear Creek fire near Salmon. For 30 days I made many of the same observations. The hundreds of rental vehicles, the Renaissance Festival-scale fire camp, the hordes of heavy machinery, the air force of helicopters.

Did you know that we were spending nearly a quarter million dollars per day to fly those ships into smoke so thick that the pilots couldn't even see what they were dropping the million gallons of retardant on? No wonder a little got into the creeks. And the Napias Creek (Salmon's water supply) fire break. From the air it reminded me of pictures of the Great Wall of China, how it danced from peak to peak far into the distance. I wonder how it looked from the space shuttle. Never mind that even if the fire had run that last 15 miles to the break, that the flames wouldn't have even blinked as they blew through.

The mills in the area must have done well from that Salmon National Forest tactic. They must have pulled a million board-feet out of there. For that matter, the whole town of Salmon must have done well last summer, restaurants, bars and hotels full of "gov'ment" every night. I'm waiting for numbers from the Chamber of Commerce. Ironic for a town that sports quite a large number of anti-government bumper stickers.

So, why all the money thrown at flames of a scale that only the first snow could knock down? Don't flatter yourself, Louise, it's not because of the thousands of seasonal employees caching the crumbs for winter. It's not because of the mid-level permanents, who, contrary to your assertion, are usually more than willing to be called out on fires if their unit managers will let go of them (they have kids to feed and mortgages to pay, too).

Here's why. Politics. What do you expect an incident commander to do when the likes of Sen. Crapo (R-Idaho) and Rep. Simpson (R-Idaho) are standing around fire camp, pacing the knapweed floor and demanding action? If they are not personally on the Forest Service's budget committee, then the senator and congressman are likely friends of someone who is. Being the good company man, do you think the IC is going to chintzy on the aircraft? Heck, even if all the firefighters and their toys are not effective, at least the "appearance" is that you are responding. As you suggest, "get something done, and do it now," is what the incident team hears.

Fire managers across the West hear the same thing every year. Worry about the price, money and environmental damage later. As one incident commander from the Rockies said after Los Alamos burned, "Every fire this year is going to be a political fire." And until the politicians let the natural-resource professionals do their jobs in ways that are good for the land, rather than just the special interests, expect more of the same.

Mark De Gregorio
Masonville, Colorado

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