Wildfires and who's to blame


I read John Maclean's excellent article "The Fiery Touch" with mounting concern, for two reasons (HCN, 8/02/10).

The first is the charge of murder. Several of my friends and colleagues are or have been wildland firefighters. My heart goes out to the families of all those killed in wildfires. Raymond Oyler is clearly a very sick man who should not be at liberty to start any more fires. But a murderer?

In 2007, six miners -- and then three rescuers -- were killed at the Crandall Canyon mine in Utah by a mine collapse that was directly related to mine management policies. Something very similar seems to have happened at the Upper Big Branch mine in West Virginia this year; at the BP refinery in Texas City; at a certain oil rig in the Gulf.

No one has been charged with any criminal offense at all, much less murder, in any of these deaths. In New Mexico, hundreds of people are killed every year by drunk drivers, often repeat offenders. Some people may be charged with manslaughter or vehicular homicide, but none (to my knowledge) has ever been charged with murder. Wildland arson is a dreadful act, but many acts, never prosecuted as murder, are more likely to lead to the deaths of innocent people. Sending a serious message to arsonists is well justified; the death penalty in this case is not.

The second and larger reason has to do with who really is responsible for the deaths of wildland firefighters. Again I write with a sense of contrition, because I once lived in wonderful ponderosa-covered foothills. Just how much would I really expect men and women like those on Engine 57 to risk -- or give -- their lives to protect my house in the woods from a forest fire? Is my house more important than their lives? Is it their responsibility to save me from my failure to thin trees, clear brush, create a fire shelter, and do many other kinds of fire protection? And is it reasonable in the first place to build houses on any wooded hillside we find attractive, assuming blithely that someone will come along (at someone else's expense) and put out the fire around them?

The assumption that it is always the taxpayers' responsibility, and wildland firefighters' dangerous and often impossible job to try to save our ponderosa or chaparral-clad corner of paradise is the real reason five men died at the Octagon House. Our public priorities and agency policies about how we respond to wildfires need some re-examination. Until they get it, we all share some responsibility for what happened to the crew of Engine 57.

David Morgan
Santa Fe, New Mexico

High Country News Classifieds