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for people who care about the West

Let the fires burn

  Ray Ring’s HCN article on fire is one of the best pieces on the topic I’ve read anywhere (HCN, 5/26/03: A losing battle). By promoting an understanding that today’s superfires result from a combination of human insults to the environment and natural climate cycles enhanced by global warming, we can begin to look at the Western wildfire situation realistically.

   Two major elements of our current political climate are keeping us plunged in an expensive state of denial on wildfire matters. First, as Randal O’Toole points out, agencies are addicted to fire-suppression funding so they keep fighting fires that will burn eventually and inevitably. Second, many agency people and politicians are unwilling to accept that livestock grazing and logging (and all their associated activities) worsen fire vulnerability, not lessen it, as industry claims.  

I propose we take the opposite approach to the McInnis/Bush plan. For now, let’s concentrate all our thinning and fire-suppression efforts in the urban interface, and let almost all fires on a majority of BLM and Forest Service lands burn within very large containment boundaries. These fires will burn eventually, so let them go across large areas. Let the pressure out of the system. Then, we can begin a sane fire-management policy in their wake, modeled after the research-based National Park Service approach.

   It’s folly to imagine we will ever thin our way out of fire danger over 200 million plus acres of public lands under either the Bush/commercial timber model or with inadequate appropriations from a “conservative” Congress. We need to acknowledge the tremendous damage firefighting inflicts on landscapes and the phenomenal waste of tax money these futile efforts represent. Crazy as it may seem, it’s time to stand back and let the fires burn.

Tom Ribe
Sante Fe, New Mexico