Smoke Gets in Your Eyes

wildfire, wildfire suppression, opinion, fire season

Smoke Gets in Your Eyes

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Orem, Tina

Fire season is here—that time of year when we look up and wonder if that cloud is actually evidence that Big Timber is burning to the ground. Though forest fires generally haven't sent rural Bozemanites packing in recent years, we figure that it's only a matter of time. So, we wondered, when the sky is orange and our lungs are burning, should we be praising Mother Nature or calling 911? Firefighter Lars Forsberg and columnist George Wuerthner decided to weigh in.

Put it Out
By George Wuerthner

In the spring of 2007, five former chiefs of the U.S. Forest Service sent a joint letter to Congress. In that letter, the chiefs warned Congress about an untenable financial situation due to the way fire-suppression funding is being handled in the federal budget.

Increasingly, the agency is being asked to pay for fire suppression at the expense of other priorities and needs. Last year, firefighting consumed 45 percent of the agency's budget, leaving less to spend on campground maintenance, trail work, wildlife and fish habitat restoration, and many other worthwhile programs.

There are, of course, several reasons for rising firefighting costs. The first is drought. It's an axiom of fire ecology that you get big fires with extreme drought. There is little one can do to control drought. Under drought conditions, fires blaze through all kinds of woodlands�and proposed solutions to reduce fire hazards like thinning forests ultimately has little effect upon fire spread under severe drought conditions.

There is evidence that thinning can actually increase fire mortality because it opens up forests to greater wind and drying, exacerbating the effects of drought.

Not surprisingly, we are experiencing some of the largest fires in recent memory, in part because we are experiencing some of the most severe drought conditions in history. For instance, this past year, Southern California has had the least amount of precipitation ever recorded. Fires are already whipping across that landscape and it's not even the late summer when Santa Ana winds historically blast out of the desert to propel blazes across the Southern California landscape.

In the Southwest, Arizona and New Mexico have experienced the worst drought in 500 years. Not since the Anazasi Indians abandoned their pueblos in the canyon country and moved to more permanent water sources along the Rio Grande has the Southwest experienced such dry conditions.

Under conditions of drought coupled with low humidity, high temperatures and, most importantly, high winds, wildfires are unstoppable. It is not a failure of federal firefighting agencies that is contributing to our growing firefighting costs, but a failure of state and local governments to bite the bullet and begin to halt the construction of new homes that are being built outside of established towns and cities throughout the West.

In recent years, the majority of the firefighting effort has focused on "structure protection." In other words, firefighters are no longer fighting the fires themselves, but spending the majority of time and effort defending homes created by rural sprawl.

Fire-related costs, both in loss of life and tax dollars, are almost totally avoidable. Nearly 85 percent of the half-mile fire hazard zones surrounding U.S. communities is found on private lands. And it is largely the responsibility of state and local governments to regulate and minimize the risk posed by wildfires.

If states would enact urban growth boundaries such as Oregon has done, confining new construction in or near existing communities, wildfire would be a minor threat to humans. But due to the failure and even hostility of many of the West's state and local governments to control sprawl, we have a growing mess and crisis.

Next time fires burn down someone's home, ask the local county commissioners or state legislature why they are allowing homes to be constructed in fire-prone areas? Constructing homes in the "fireplain" is no different than building a home in the river's floodplain. Sooner or later, you are going to lose your home and maybe even your life.

With global warming creating conditions favorable for large unstoppable fires, we are going to see more and more large blazes. Either we continue to keep our heads in the sand refusing to make adjustments in our behavior and suffer the consequences, or we can begin to change our behavior so when the inevitable large fires do occur, we aren't victims of our own ideological rhetoric.

Put it Out
By Lars Forsberg

To suppress or not to suppress, that is the question. Wildfires in our area of the country are a fact of life, and the decision process of whether to engage a wildfire must include the value of the timber, the value of property, and the possibility of lives lost.

True, the suppression of fires during the last century has undoubtedly affected the health of the nation's forests negatively. However, we cannot simply adopt a "let it burn" policy, because a resistance to putting fires out during the last century has caused forests to undergo major structural changes that may preclude the benefit of natural fires. Dense undergrowth and deadfall dominate many forests as a result of this fire exclusion. These forest conditions, combined with development within the Wildland-Urban Interface (WUI), mean we must use fuel-reduction and construction techniques appropriate for the real-world environment.

Homes in or near forests are deemed to be within the wildland urban interface, and suppressing fires within or near the WUI is challenging and expensive. Thus, local land managers and incident-command teams have to consider the costs to the local economy and loss in real estate value when evaluating suppression tactics. Ultimately, the success or failure of fire suppression is often the result of the preparation by the landowners.

The state Senate is taking steps to address these issues. Montana Senate Bill No. 51 requires the Department of Labor and Industry to adopt rules for development within the WUI by October 1, 2009. These rules will include best practices for development within the WUI, grant and loan assistance for local governments, and identification of enforcement mechanisms. They will also address how citizens and builders must handle fire hazards and implement certain construction techniques. The Northern Rocky Mountain Resource Conservation & Development currently provides grants to homeowners in southwest Montana for reducing hazardous fuels on their urban interface properties.

As development grows within the interface around Bozeman, wildfire suppression will become more of a concern, and more of a cost burden for local and federal authorities. The unfortunate reality of the current situation is that a "let it burn, just not in my backyard" policy is only effective in a healthy forest. But due to the fire exclusion of the last century, our forests are not healthy.

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