USA — After Tuesday’s helicopter crash that killed nine firefighters, critics are questioning the U.S. Forest Service’s decision to attack California’s raging forest fires rather than let them burn themselves out.
Transporting firefighters into wilderness areas adds unnecessary risk to what’s already a dangerous profession, said Timothy Ingalsbee of Eugene, executive director of Firefighters United for Safety, Ethics and Ecology.
“Why were they up there doing aggressive suppression in the wilderness, in the most remote, rugged terrain, far from any community or infrastructure?” he asked. “What kind of social or environmental benefit warranted the extreme risk those crews were ordered to take?”
Ingalsbee’s group, with a board of directors that includes former Forest Service smoke jumpers and elite Hotshot crew members, advocates safe and ecological management of wildland fires. The group and many other foresters, firefighters and environmental activists believe fires often improve forest health and should be allowed to burn if homes are not threatened. To do otherwise raises critical questions about the Forest Service’s handling of the fires, Ingalsbee said.
The Forest Service allows a let-it-burn approach to wilderness fires, but a regional forester last month suspended that policy in California’s 20 million acres of national forests. The decision effectively committed crews to suppressing all blazes instead of backing off when fires rage in remote areas.
Citing the number of large fires statewide and “air quality considerations in California,” Regional Forester Randy Moore told forest supervisors July 9 that he would not approve new or continued “wildland fire use,” or WFU, the practice of letting fires in wilderness areas burn and using them as a tool to consume fuel loads.
Moore could not be reached for comment Friday, but a Forest Service spokesman defended the decision. Smoke from forest fires has caused “horrendous” air quality problems in Northern California, said Mike Odle, a public affairs officer.
The 20,039-acre Buckhorn Fire, where the helicopter went down, is only 25 percent contained and has the potential to grow significantly, Odle said. While it does not immediately threaten communities, a fire management team projection showed it has the potential to approach Highway 299, a major route running west from Redding to the coast, he said.
The Buckhorn is part of the Iron and Alps Complex fires, which have burned nearly 90,000 acres.
“It had the potential to continue to grow and cause smoke issues, as well as resource damage,” Odle said.
The issue is complicated because the Shasta-Trinity National Forest in Northern California, where the fatal crash occurred, has never adopted the practice of wildland fire use. Instead, Shasta-Trinity uses a nuanced management policy that allows wilderness fires to burn if they are likely to be contained by natural barriers such as creeks, granite cliffs and trails, Odle said.
On the Buckhorn section of the fire, however, the Forest Service used an “all-suppression” approach because of the smoke impact and the fire’s potential to grow, Odle said. Even if the Shasta-Trinity had adopted a let-it-burn policy, it probably would not have been used on that fire, he said.
Air quality in Humboldt, Trinity and Del Norte counties has been poor — and at times hazardous — since lightning strikes touched off forest fires in late June, according to the North Coast United Air Quality Management District, in Eureka. Shasta County’s air quality was classified as “unhealthy” for seven days in July and “very unhealthy” for three days because of forest fires.
Ingalsbee, of the Eugene-based firefighters’ group, acknowledged that smoke from forest fires causes health problems and is a nuisance, but said fires are part of the natural cycle that improve a forest’s health. “You can’t have the benefits of fire without smoke,” he said.
He said wilderness fires that spread to threaten homes can be attacked in a strategic manner, with “point protection” at key areas rather than trying to contain them with wide perimeter assaults. “Instead we have taxpayers paying the bill and parents are paying the price for fighting fires far away from these communities,” he said.