MISSOULA, Mont. – As the wildfire burned furiously toward two firefightersclearing trees in the mountains near Cramer Creek, Idaho, they repeatedly called over their radio for a helicopter to get them off the rocky slope.
“Oh God, we’ve got fire down below us,” one firefighter, Jeff Allen, told the dispatcher. “Just make them hurry up.”
But the helicopters were refueling and by the time they arrived, the smoke was too thick to land, sealing the fate of Mr. Allen, 24, and Shane Heath,22.
In January, an investigation by the United States Forest Service concluded that the incident commander for the fire last summer had violated all 10standard orders to ensure firefighter safety, including posting lookouts and identifying escape routes, a breakdown that led to the deaths of the twofirefighters.
But the real problem, said Andy Stahl, executive director of Forest Service Employees for Environmental Ethics, was not addressed in theinvestigation: the Forest Service fights too many fires.
“Why did they choose to fight that fire in the first place?” he asked. “It was in the middle of a roadless area next to a wilderness area. There wereno homes or communities that stood to be harmed. Fire was the best thing that could have happened to the ecology.”
Mr. Stahl and other critics of the service say fire is as important as rain in maintaining the health of forests. They say the agency should allow manymore fires to burn in unpopulated areas to clear downed timber and underbrush, thus restoring forests to their natural condition.
Despite a growing body of research that recognizes the vital ecological role that fires play in the West, critics say the government is continuing itsaggressive war against wilderness blazes. It is a campaign fought on two fronts: from above, with World War II-era bombers that dump tons of chemicalfire retardant, and from below, with firefighters dropped in by plane, driven in by trucks or marched in overland.
But fundamental questions are being raised about how much of this war isnecessary, and whether the rising costs of the battle against fire – in dollars, environmental damage and the lives of firefighters – are worth it.
“For the Forest Service, fighting fires is instinctual, not rational,” Mr. Stahl said.
Only 110 out of more than 10,000 wildfires were allowed to burn naturally in national forests last year, according to the National InteragencyFire Center.
Last fall the Forest Service employees’ group, whose directors are mostly current and former Forest Service workers, filed a lawsuit here seeking torequire the agency to conduct its first official review of its firefightingstrategy. The 12,000-member organization seeks to pressure the Forest Service to address environmental and other issues related to nationalforests.
The suit, still in its early stages, calls for a study to address the environmental effects of dropping fire retardant, which can result in thespread of noxious weeds and kill fish in streams. It would also require the agency to look at questions like whether more fires should be allowed toburn and the impact of firefighting on health and safety.
“Two years ago, my son Devin died while fighting the Thirty Mile Fire,” said KenWeaver, a member of the employees group, referring to a blaze in north-central Washington in 2002. “His death was needless. That firethreatened nothing, and certainly nothing worth the lives of the four firefighters who perished.”
The fire occurred in an area where the agency’s rules say fires were to be allowed to burn.
In its legal response to the suit, the service said it could not study the environmental effects of firefighting because it could not predict where andwhen wildfires would occur.
Jerry Williams, national director of fire and aviation for the Forest Service in Washington, D.C., said firefighter safety had always beenforemost in the agency’s mind. “It’s a question we’re struggling with now,”Mr. Williams said.
While the service fought wildfires on 1.4 million acres last year, he said, 300,000 acres of wilderness were allowed to burn naturally. Inaddition, he said, prescribed fires, those set deliberately to burn brush and deadwood, were set on another 1.2 million acres. Critics say that figure is far toosmall, and Mr. Williams agrees, saying: “The real question is, Are we using enoughfire? We’re not, and we need to use more.”
At the same time, he said, a growing number of homes are being built on private land near national forests, which makes it difficult to enforce theagency’s fire-burning policy.
“At critical fire-danger levels there is no telling where those fires will end up” if they are allowed to burn, he said. “We’ve had fires where we’vemade a decision to let it go, and one, two or three weeks later they’re headed for a town.”
He cited the fires that swept through Yellowstone National Park in 1988 as anexample, noting that officials let them burn early on but watched them grow to threaten towns in and near the park.
Firefighting is a summer job for thousands of young men and women. But it is alsodangerous. In 2003, 29 firefighters were killed fighting wildfires, most in vehicle or aircraft crashes, and many more were injured.
“I’d like to see them quit fighting fires everywhere” except near homes, Mr. Weaver said, “and return the rest of the woods to Mother Nature.” The ForestService’s own research shows that clearing flammable materials near inhabited areas is the best way to protect them from wildfires.
There is also growing concern about the cost of fighting fires. The Forest Service spent $1.4 billion in 2002 battling seven million acres ofwildfires; in 1996, when six million acres burned, the cost was $522 million.
A major reason for that increase, Mr. Williams said, is the rise in development in remote areas, which requires more firefighters and equipmentto battle blazes.
Critics counter by saying the rising costs have more to do with bureaucracy thansprawl.
Firefighting has become the main mission of the Forest Service. Timber cutting, once its primary purpose, has declined by 80 percent in the lastdecade. After devastating fire seasons, the agency’s budget has grown to more than $4 billion, from $2.8 billion in 1996, largely to coverfirefighting costs. Firefighting has also become a big business, with morethan 125 companies vying for lucrative governmentcontracts.
Randal O’Toole, an economist with the libertarian Thoreau Institute in Bandon,Ore., who has studied the Forest Service for years, says the agency often ignores scientific studies that show how important fire is to forestecosystems. “It’s more risky to someone’s career to let it burn,” Mr. O’Toole said. “So they put it out, even if it’s the wrong thing to doecologically.”