Judd Slivka The Arizona Republic Jul. 11, 2003 12:00 AM
National forests in the West were considered targets for al-Qaida attacks, according to an FBI memo to law enforcement agencies dated June 25. A senior al-Qaida detainee told federal investigators he had developed a plan to set midsummer forest fires in Colorado, Montana, Utah and Wyoming, according to the document, obtained by The Arizona Republic. “The detainee believed that significant damage to the U.S. economy would result and once it was realized that the fires were terrorist acts, U.S. citizens would put pressure on the U.S. government to change its policies,” the memo said. The unidentified detainee said he hoped to create several large, catastrophic wildfires at once, mimicking the destructive fires that swept across Australia in 2002, according to the memo. The Forest Service took note of the warning, a spokeswoman said, but didn’t really change any of its policies or operating patterns. In fact, many forest law enforcement officers contacted by The Republic had no idea the warning had been issued at all. “It goes along with the rest of the alerts,” said Rose Davis, a spokeswoman for the National Interagency Fire Center in Boise, Idaho. “It’s a reminder to be vigilant. We hope the public is, too. If you see something suspicious in an airport, report it. Likewise, if you see something suspicious in a forest, report it.”
But neither the interagency fire center nor the Forest Service chose to report the warning to the public. The decision to release the information was up to the FBI. A spokeswoman for the bureau’s Denver office, which drew up the memo, declined to comment. The al-Qaida detainee told investigators that his plan called for three or four operatives to travel to the United States and set timed explosive devices in forests and grasslands. The devices would be set to detonate after the operatives had left the country.
But the FBI, Department of Homeland Security and U.S. Attorney’s Office in Wyoming could not evaluate the source or the accuracy of the information. The detainee’s admission may have been given as a smokescreen. “The information provided may have been intended to influence as well as inform,” the memo said. In the days since Sept. 11, 2001, the idea of intentionally setting fires as a terrorist act has been bandied about in the fire community.
“I thought about it a lot after 9/11,” said Don Riddle, the law enforcement officer for the Manti-LaSal National Forest in Utah. “How hard would it be for someone to get in a small plane and fly over a forest dropping fusees (flares) or firing off a flare gun as they flew over?” With fires in the right place, they could be devastating, destroying homes and commercial timber areas. They would also tie up a significant amount of national resources. “When fire season really gets rolling,” Riddle said, “they call out the National Guard.” And when things really get bad – as they did in 2000, 2001 and last year – Army and Marine units get called out as emergency firefighters. America’s national forests have been targeted before. On Sept. 9, 1942, a plane launched from a Japanese submarine flew over Oregon’s forests dropping incendiary bombs. The plan was to cause massive conflagrations in the forests that would be hard to fight because of their size and the lack of manpower. But the weather didn’t cooperate, and the fires the Japanese set didn’t spread very far. Six decades later, the forests are in substantially worse shape, snarled with timber and tinder-dry. A bark beetle infestation across the West has made the forests even more susceptible to fire. “This is not considered an immediate threat,” said the National Interagency Fire Center’s Davis. “But we do consider it another potential ignition source at a dangerous time.”