Idaho, USA — Western public lands, including thePayette National Forest in Idaho, the Gila National Forest in southwestern NewMexico and the Bitterroot National Forest that straddles the Montana-Idahoborder, have become “let-it-burn laboratories,” federal wildfiremanagers say.
Sparse populations surrounding those forests make it possible to pursue someof the nation’s most progressive fire management policies.
An increasing number of wildfire managers are letting more lightning-causedfires on federal land burn, to help return forests to their natural state wherewildfire and trees survived in equilibrium before modern man’s arrival. Thepolicy also keeps firefighters from harm’s way — and could save millions ofdollars otherwise spent fighting fires miles far from civilization.
Environmental advocates favor these changes, saying they let Mother Naturetake her course — even as some forest communities fear allowing more fires toburn is a recipe for disaster.
The 1988 firestorm in Yellowstone National Park that torched 1.2 millionacres was one turning point, emboldening fire managers who were already arguingthat battling every drought- or wind-fueled fire in the West was an exercise infutility.
Sam Hescock, a U.S. Forest Service regional fire manager on the PayetteNational Forest north of Idaho’s capital, remembers a key turning point in hisforest: It was July 1996, and a dry lightning storm rolled over the FrankChurch-River of No Return Wilderness, igniting a remote wildfire. He toldfirefighters to hold off — to the chagrin of some forest bosses.
“They told me, ‘Sam, we normally don’t let those things go until Aug.15. In July, we just don’t do that,’ ” Hescock recalls. “I told them,’Then you hired the wrong person.’ “
Hescock has survived as a fire manager at the Payette, and he’s still lettingthousands of acres of ponderosa pine burn each year following lightning strikes,whether it’s Aug. 15 or not.
Last year, fighting wildfires cost $1.3 billion when a record 9.8 millionU.S. acres burned. Twenty-four wildland firefighters died. A study by theNational Interagency Fire Center in Boise concluded that a wildland fire costs$43 an acre to monitor, compared to suppression fires, where bills can run ashigh as $250 an acre.
“The benefit is safety and a lot of economics,” Hescock said.”What happens if we crash an airplane or hurt a smokejumper on a fire milesfrom nowhere? What do we tell the parents? Why not just have a fire scar outthere?”
Between 1972, the first year the Forest Service says it allowed alightning-caused fire to burn, and 1988, the agency let an average of just12,000 acres burn unimpeded annually. From 1988 to 2000, that figure tripled to35,000 acres, for what came to be called “Wildland Fire Use” fires.Since then, the number has spiked to as many as 300,000 acres a year.
That’s a far cry from the 1930s Forest Service’s “10 a.m. policy,”when the agency set a goal of extinguishing new fires by 10 a.m. the next day.
“A vast majority of agency personnel, whether it’s Forest Service,National Park Service, or Bureau of Land Management, now appreciate theimportant role that fire plays in the landscape,” said George Wuerthner,author of “Fire Ecology: A Century of Failed Forest Policy.”
“Most of the people in the agencies are recognizing we can’t put out allthe fires,” Wuerthner said. “We don’t have the resources to do it, andwith climate change, it’s getting harder to put out fires.”
That’s easy for faraway officials to say, contend residents of Idaho’sdeep-woods hamlets such as Yellow Pine or Secesh, who are surrounded bywildfires every summer. Their fear: the policy could lead to disaster if awildland fire once deemed harmless gets out of control.
A case in point: the 1988 Canyon Creek Fire, originally allowed to burn inMontana’s Scapegoat Wilderness, exploded to torch a total of 250,000 acres,including 40,000 acres of private ranchland. Such fears are running high inIdaho’s remote communities, with more than a dozen wildfires now burning on morethan 1,300 square miles — more than 830,000 acres — across the state,including several Wildland Fire Use fires that likely won’t be out until Octoberbrings rain and snow.
Margaret Cooper runs the Winter Inn in Warren, just northeast of McCall,where she’s lived since 1970.
Outside her lodge, fire crews Wednesday were installing sprinkler systems andtrimming roadside brush after ordering a voluntary evacuation due to the62-square-mile East Zone Complex of wildfires, which has already torched threeSalmon River cabins. It’s not a Wildland Fire Use blaze; about 350 firefighterswere digging fire lines there.
Still, Cooper believes efforts to suppress many of the area’s fires havegrown less aggressive as the Forest Service becomes more comfortable withallowing some fires to burn.
“It used to be, they didn’t let anything burn. And now they’re going tolet it all burn in a few years,” Cooper said. “The firefighters thatare in there trying to help us are doing a very good job of it. We’re not mad atthem, it’s the policy that’s handed down to them.”
Tim Sexton, the Forest Service’s fire use program manager at the NationalInteragency Fire Center in Boise, said his agency hasn’t stopped suppressingfires near private property. Deciding when to let a lightning-caused blaze burnand when to deploy firefighters with shovels, bulldozers and retardant-droppingC-135 military air tankers is a balancing act.
First, there must be a minimum risk to private land before a fire is allowedto burn, he said.
And while sparsely populated forests in Idaho, Montana and New Mexico makeideal candidates for the strategy, it’s unlikely the San Bernardino or AngelesNational forests in populous Southern California will ever let fires burn,Sexton said.
Still, more are adopting the practice. Across America, the Forest Service hasexpanded its areas where Wildland Fire Use fires may be allowed to burn to athird of its total 200 million acres.