The national debate over wildfires and forest management may be explosive, but it has a decisively calmer tone among top firefighters. Three of the country’s most experienced fire hands say incident commanders, fire management officers and line bosses across the nation are single-minded about the need for active forest management to serve as a surrogate for fire in forests that have evolved with fire. “There is no debate,” said Dave Bunnell, a 38-year Forest Service fire veteran. “If we keep going like we are, we’ll keep losing battles and eventually we’ll lose the war. We can no longer overwhelm the sheer force of the natural process just with increasing resources, money and the skill we apply to these things.” Bob Mutch, a 50-year fire veteran, had a similar outlook: “At one time, I think we had the naive impression that our suppression abilities would prevail.” But over the last 10-15 years, it’s become increasingly obvious that conditions are “strongly stacked” against firefighters, Mutch said. “The reality is we are going to be doing this again and again and again,” said Rex Mann, area commander over 38 large fires that have burned nearly 200,000 acres in Northwest Montana this summer. “We have to treat fuels across the country. That’s an absolute fact.” That kind of position might seem predictable, coming from men who spent most of their careers working in an agency that had largely been focused on harvesting timber and stomping out every fire that could be found. But Mutch and Bunnell have holistic backgrounds when it comes to fire, being among the first to recognize the ecological impacts of excluding fire from forest ecosystems for more than 80 years. Mutch, 69, fought his first forest fire in 1953 and was a smokejumper. He played a key role in the Forest Service’s first prescribed natural fire in a wilderness, the 1972 Whitecap Creek fire in the Selway-Bitterroot Wilderness. He also developed the agency’s use of prescribed fires elsewhere. He retired in 1994, but has consulted in the fire business and has repeatedly worked on overhead management teams during hot fire seasons. He was recruited to work on the Northwest Montana Area Command this summer, along with Bunnell, 60, who fought his first fire in 1964 and was also active in introducing prescribed fires to wilderness areas. He was the Forest Service’s national prescribed fire and wildland fire use program manager until his retirement in January. Mann, 59, is a 35-year Forest Service veteran from Kentucky’s Daniel Boone National Forest. He has spent much of his career as one of the country’s few Type I incident commanders and area commanders. Mann says the national wildfire/forest health debate has been framed in a fashion where skeptics, most often environmental groups, contend the Forest Service and the Bush administration are mainly aiming to load logging trucks. But Mann says it’s clear to him that the Forest Service leadership has no intention of making timber harvest the agency’s top priority. Instead, he says the Forest Service is aiming for a variety of logging, thinning, burning and brush clearing that will be locally tailored to meet specific landscapes, with a premium on keeping the largest, most fire-resistant trees on the landscape. “This is not rocket science,” Bunnell says. “It’s worse. It’s more difficult and complex. There is nothing linear and straightforward about it.” But Mann is straightforward in saying that doing nothing is unacceptable. After decades of aggressive fire suppression, forests across the country now carry fire in an entirely unnatural way. Last summer, that was the basic message Mann had for President Bush in a meeting at the Biscuit Fire in Oregon. “I told him our woods are a mess and we’ve got to fix it and he understood that,” he said. “A lot of people think we just want to send logs to the mill, and I just don’t think that is the case.” Mutch says fire exclusion has produced forests with unnatural species compositions and fuel loads in many areas of the West. The Blue Mountains of eastern Oregon, for instance, were historically dominated by big pine forests, but fire exclusion completely converted the Blue Mountains into a fir forest that has been hit hard by a spruce budworm epidemic. Forest conditions in the Blue Mountains are now entirely stacked against the country’s firefighting establishment, Mutch said. While Mutch is a strong advocate of using prescribed fires, he says that forest management tool is too risky in many forests without first thinning them. And in many forests that have been populated with homes, fire is not an option. “We can have an influence on the physical texture of vegetation in the West,” Bunnell says. “We need not only to build this moat around the castle, our communities, but we also need to minimize the intensity of fires as they approach these areas.” Fuel reduction projects that are limited to forests immediately adjacent to communities will do little to defuse conditions that rapidly create large fires, Bunnell says. The Wilderness Society, among other groups, has steadfastly called for fuels reduction projects near communities. The group points out that only 15 percent of “communities” are surrounded by federal lands, and therefore more money and efforts should be directed to state and local agencies for fuels reduction. Bunnell, Mutch and Mann say it is obvious in western Montana and many other parts of the West that many towns are just a stone’s throw from federal lands. Even more obvious is the proliferation of homes that might not be considered “communities,” but lie in the path of fires that can and will emerge on federal lands. “Fires that are a threat to a lot of homes and communities are coming from our wildlands,” Bunnell said. “They aren’t starting in the urban interface.” A major concern for people in the firefighting community, Mann said, is that once a season or two passes without severe wildfires, focus on the issue will probably wane. Another problem is the Forest Service and other land management agencies are often overwhelmed with post-fire rehabilitation or salvage work in the wake of large fire seasons. That can divert attention from fuels reduction and community protection work, which should have the highest priority, he said. “That’s a huge concern,” said Flathead Forest Supervisor Cathy Barbouletos. Already, Flathead Forest staffers are meeting to address the logistical problem of pursuing post-fire work this year without derailing high-priority fuel reduction projects that have been in the planning process. “We have more work than we have horsepower, and that’s the tough part,” Barbouletos said. Forest managers need to pursue fuels reduction work as a priority, Mutch said, because the public will eventually realize the country’s once-mighty firefighting machine can no longer stop every large fire, no matter how much is spent. And he hopes the public will eventually realize the forest management value of prescribed fires, which often are still regarded as controversial. “The politicians and the public need to realize this is not a risk-free business, and they need to stand behind these people who are trying to do the right thing,” he said.
Reporter Jim Mann may be reached at 758-4407 or by e-mail at email@example.com