Two big fire agencies have vastly different philosophies

Two big fire agencies have vastly different philosophies

23 November 2008

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USA — Though they are sworn to protect some of California’s most precious resources, there’s a philosophical separation between the state’s most prominent firefighting forces.

And top officials from the California Department of Forestry and Fire Protection and the U.S. Forest Service don’t deny it.

“We have different missions,” explained Del Walters, assistant northern region chief for Cal Fire in Redding.

Sharon Heywood, supervisor of the Shasta-Trinity National Forest, agreed.

“We are a land management agency,” Heywood said. “. . . They (Cal Fire) are not in the managing land business.”

Walters said the state agency fights few fires on land under its jurisdiction and is primarily trying to stop threats to lives and damage to private property.

“We have only one objective when we fight fire – and that is to put it out,” Walters said.

While Forest Service will aggressively fight fire if it is threatening lives or homes close to or on land it manages, fires in the backcountry are handled differently, Heywood said.

“We are aggressive as we can safely be given, the land we are dealing with,” Heywood said.

Access and terrain play a major role in how the Forest Service deals fires, she said.

“We (often) don’t have roads to drive up there,” Heywood said.

While the Forest Service’s smoke jumper crews can drop in on a fire almost anywhere, much of the Shasta-Trinty’s landscape makes a firefight difficult.

Heywood said the majority of forestland is steep terrain.

While she said the forest’s fire crews are able to put out 98 percent of the fires that start on their land, the 2 percent that aren’t extinguish out right away may grow out of control.

Most the land under Cal Fire jurisdiction is less rugged and closer to towns than land the Forest Service deals with, Walters said.

But this year’s onslaught of fire brought by a June electrical storm did spark fires in the small parts of the backcountry that Cal Fire handles.

So, deviating from its usual approach, the state agency did have unstaffed fires this year, Walters said.

Because of the different ways that the two agencies fight fire, Heywood said perception persists that Cal Fire will put out a blaze quickly while the Forest Service won’t.

“We still have people who believe (that our philosophy is), ‘There is a fire over there, let it burn,’ ” Heywood said.

But she said her agency’s focus is on preserving the lands it manages and protecting those who live and work in or near it – so it will fight threatening fires.

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