The field decisions in fighting wildfire are tough and costly (Opinion)

 The field decisions in fighting wildfire are tough and costly (Opinion)

16 August 2016

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USA — By Tom Tidwell

Bigger, hotter wildfires with much longer fire seasons are the new normal in a changing climate, threatening our forests and surrounding communities. In fact, over the last 40 years the average number of acres burned each year has doubled. And as we continue to build homes and communities closer to the wildland, these fires become ever more difficult to fight.

The effects of wildland fires can be devastating — to the lives of people who have lost their homes and possessions and to the land that provides us clean water, wildlife habitat and forage. Most of all, wildfires are devastating to people who have lost a son or daughter, a husband or wife, or a friend.

The Canyon Creek Complex fire of 2015 hit the communities of John Day and Canyon City hard (“Firestorm: Poor planning and tactical errors fueled a wildfire catastrophe,” Aug. 14.) Last August, I met with many families who lost their homes. The next day in eastern Washington, I comforted a mother and father whose son was killed in a wildland fire, and then I met with a spouse who lost her husband. I have experienced the pain of people whose lives are changed forever. My heart still aches for them.

While there is no greater challenge than confronting loss of this gravity, putting lives back together after tragedy strikes is something strong communities do collectively — shoulder to shoulder. This is proving true in eastern Oregon.

The United States has the most experienced, capable, and hardworking wildland firefighting force in the world, and many firefighters are members of the very communities that are reeling in the aftermath of fires like the Canyon Creek Complex.

2015 put us to the test. It was a record year for large, hot, destructive and costly fires. Wildfires burned 10,125,149 acres across the United States, surpassing the previous record set in 2006. The cost of fighting these fires was a record $3.3 billion. These are records no one wanted to beat. That growing cost means that less money is left over for the U.S. Forest Service to do the restoration work necessary to make our forests resilient to fire in the first place.

On Aug. 12, 2015, a dry lightning storm swept across eastern Oregon before dawn, igniting 12 new wildfires in the Malheur National Forest. The Berry Creek and Mason Springs fires were two of those 12 fires. The response to the Berry Creek and Mason Springs fires was immediate and involved aerial and ground resources. However, strong winds on Aug. 14 pushed fire beyond containment lines and the Berry Creek and Mason Spring fires merged, creating the much larger Canyon Creek Complex fire. When that fire was finally controlled on Nov. 5, 100,000 acres of land burned, 43 homes were destroyed and lives were forever changed.

Based on the sheer number of fires burning across the country last August, the Forest Service and all other firefighting agencies were stretched thin and were forced to make difficult decisions on where to place limited firefighting resources. Crews were brought in from other states — and even other countries — to assist in these herculean efforts. Yet in August, with over 32,000 people working the fires and with the combination of steep terrain, dry fuels, and hot, dry, windy weather, we were not able to suppress all fires.

Always, our primary charge is to protect lives — the lives of our firefighters and lives of those in communities. In 2015, six U.S. Forest Service firefighters, along with seven personnel from other agencies, lost their lives while battling fires. While we make every effort to protect property in the way of wildfires, we often face difficult decisions when those efforts put lives of our fighters at risk.

I recognize that when homes and livelihoods are at stake, it is sometimes hard to understand when decisions are made to change tactics — when it is not safe for our firefighters or our pilots — until conditions change. Amid great uncertainty, highly trained and skilled wildland firefighters are forced to weigh decisions that may result in untold sacrifice. 2015 was the most challenging year on record for our crews and the communities we serve, and we made the best decisions we could to protect the lives and property of families, as well as forests and grasslands.

The Forest Service knows that what happens on the ground before fire strikes is often just as critical as fighting the fire when it starts, which is why we, and communities across the country, are aggressively pursuing collaborative restoration efforts to reduce the wildfire threat and restore forest health. Decades of suppressing all fires and constrained budgets that have limited our capacity have resulted in millions of acres in need of restoration that will take decades of committed collaboration and resources to restore.

As we recover from the aftermath of wildfires, the Forest Service will continue to learn everything we can from these tragic fires. We remain committed to working with people of diverse backgrounds and perspectives to accelerate restoration and promote forest health and resiliency, reduce the risk of catastrophic wildfire and support the economic wellbeing of communities.

Undesirable wildfire is a threat to all of us, and we will continue to face that threat together as we continue forwards in healing the land and our hearts.

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