Wildland firefighting faces challenges

Wildland firefighting faces challenges

25 September 2015

published by www.aspendailynews.com

USA– Property owners need to take more personal responsibility when it comes to fire mitigation, as governments and responding agencies represent only one part of the solution to a growing problem, speakers emphasized during the first day of the Colorado Wildland Fire Conference 2015 at the Viceroy Snowmass.

As the Valley Fire, which has claimed more than 1,900 structures and is now considered the third most destructive fire in California’s history, continued to burn, here in the Roaring Fork Valley fire managers, representatives from federal agencies and politicians weighed in on the harsh realities of wildfire management policies “that have exacerbated the problem they were supposed to be set up to solve,” according to keynote speaker Dr. Kathleen Tierney, a sociologist from the University of Colorado-Boulder.

Policies that were first written in 1910 favoring fire suppression over fuel reduction need to change. That and a long-standing opposition to prescribed burns have resulted in a “tremendous build up in fire fuels,” Tierney said.

“The situation with wildfire in the American West makes people anything but optimistic,” she said. Tierney rued having to begin the three-day conference, which continues through Sept. 26, on a negative note but also refused to ignore the “serious and daunting challenges” that are endemic and unlikely to change in the near future.

Craig Goodell, a fire ecologist with the Bureau of Land Management who is based in the Pacific Northwest, reiterated this point later in the day. He compared two photos of the same hillside that were shot in 1890 and again in 2010. The latter image showed a landscape thick with potential ignitors.

“That’s what is causing over time more destructive and larger fires,” he said.

Goodell noted that in 2014, more than 4,000 fires in the Pacific Northwest were suppressed rather than being allowed to burn. This year, it’s been a “long, arduous fire season.”

That the fire season started in June in the Olympic Peninsula, considered one of the wettest areas in the lower 48 states, confirmed his description this has been an “unprecedented” year.

Despite recruiting staff from the U.S. Army, National Guard and Air Force, plus getting assistance from Canada, Australia and New Zealand, there weren’t enough resources to fight all of the fires. That led to a nexus point “where we couldn’t fight fire like we had in the past,” he said.

While protecting human life and communities at risk (rather than scattered homes) will continue to be a priority, Goodell suggested that in the future, how wildland fires are fought could appear very different.

“What it might look like is once a buffer is built around a community, we may allow fire to do its role,” he said. “Research has shown that fire is one of the best tools that land managers have in protecting communities and maintaining an ecosystem’s health and integrity.”

Shelly Crook of U.S. Fish & Wildlife Service, who called herself a “fire pusher,” suggested that more “catastrophic’ fires could be in the offing because of reasons that go beyond fuel. Those include roads that aren’t adequately maintained in wilderness areas and differing priorities that exist between agencies who may be more concerned with protecting an animal species, for example.

“We’re kicking the can down the road, basically shifting the risk to future generations,” said Crook, who added that her views were shaped by a tenure working in California’s Sierra Nevada district.

How can change be affected?

“Cultural change in very old institutions is very difficult,” said Tierney, who also referred to “gigantic houses” built in the very same location in the Oakland Hills where a firestorm had raged in 1991.

A trend of people moving to “exurbia” who are “so impressed by the beauty, they didn’t think about wildfire hazard” are also increasing the exposure.

“They don’t think about the ignition hazard that’s involved with building a house … that’s all windows,” Tierney said. The absentee homeowner may also be hampered by not having a local touch point who can check on the home.

Residents who haven’t taken simple preventative measures, such as clearing brush, prove frustrating to those on the front line.

“They expect you to show up on the worst days of their lives,” said Ron Biggers, Glenwood Springs fire marshal. He suggested that the entire industry needs to start speaking about its “values.”

“Are we willing to risk our brothers and sisters for your home if you haven’t taken the responsibility to take care of it?” Biggers asked rhetorically.

Goodell said maybe one place to start is with firefighting icon Smokey the Bear whose “message is pretty clear, fire is not a good thing. We really need to revise that message,” he said.

And there also needs to be a “paradigm shift” when it comes to both education and how fire is managed, he added.

Patti Clapper, Pitkin County commissioner, said the board “tries to educate people about what they’re doing, why they’re doing it and how it affects not only them but their neighbors.” While public safety is “one of our primary concerns,” she said elected officials must also be careful so these actions don’t appear to be construed as “takings” of property right

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