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Know the West

Firefighting at fault


In his Oct. 17 editor's note, Paul Larmer writes: "Meanwhile, gigantic, uncontrolled fires have become more common than ever, largely driven by shifts in climate. Whether caused by lightning, arsonists or negligent campers, these mega-fires are reshaping the West. Smart managers are learning to use them, letting them burn where they can do some ecological good and fighting them where they threaten towns and subdivisions" (HCN, 10/17/11, "Management by mega-fire").

Like the national firefighting establishment, Larmer is in denial about a major reason Western wildfires are getting larger and more intense: the firefighting itself.

Because of safety (really OSHA) concerns, firefighters back off wildfires in the West's rugged backcountry. They build firelines and then conduct massive "burn out" operations to connect the natural fire to those firelines. This vastly increases the size of fires and has been missed entirely by fire researchers, because data on the size and intensity of wildfires intentionally do not distinguish the area burned by firefighters from the area burned naturally. It is all considered "natural," which is why their research is so often not worth the paper it was written on.

In 2008, northwest California had one of the largest fires in the nation. But over half of the area burned was discretionary suppression fire set by firefighters. These suppression fires regularly burn at higher intensity than natural wildfire, largely because firefighters want it that way: "Make it black" is their battle cry.

Fighting wildfire in the backcountry is dangerous and ineffective. The approach Larmer advocates -- fighting fire aggressively in the front country, and "loose herding" fires in the backcountry -- makes good sense. But the national firefighting bureaucracy will not reform itself. Westerners will have to make that happen.  

Felice Pace
Klamath, California