USA – We are at a critical time with wildfire in the United States. As editor of “Smokejumper” magazine, I’m in constant contact with people around the western US, many of whom are retired United States Forest Service people who handled wildfire years ago when our goal was to get them out and save our forests.
There is the continual drumbeat that, due to our good fire management over years, the forests have become overgrown and the fuel load increased. They say we should let nature take its course and let wildfire burn as it did in the past.
The problem — we are not living in the past. When wildfire burned tremendous areas 200-plus years ago, there were not 330 million people living in the US We need to treat the problems of the present with solutions that will work for the present.
The attitude of the USFS in handling wildfire has changed. They look at wildfire as an opportunity to introduce fire into the forests as was done in centuries past. Concept good — results bad!
The length of the fire season has increased by two months. The USFS has changed the terminology on fires from “let burn” to “managed fire.” It is very hard to manage fire under the present conditions. The best way to handle wildfire during the fire season is to put it out at the earliest possible time.
Here is what we see from the USFS: A fire starts in a forested area, and they determine to manage the fire by using the “box” method. The box is a predetermined area in which the fire is allowed to burn. However, under current conditions, it is not unusual for the fire to escape the box.
Time after time, wildfire that could have been stopped early develops into multi-million dollar fires, burns forests, homes and private property. Then comes a press release from the USFS: “There were no available resources available to fight this fire at the time of origin.”
As a smokejumper (parachute to fires) at Cave Junction, Oregon, we always prided ourselves on putting out fires when they were small and hardly noticed. In 1981 the USFS closed the base “to save money.” During the 39 years the base was open, the annual burn was small. Since the closing, there have been fires totaling over a billion dollars in just suppression costs alone. Suppression costs are just a fraction of the total expense.
The Biscuit Fire (2002) burned over 500,000 acres and cost taxpayers over $1 billion with expenses that have been growing over the years with multi-lawsuits. It was a fire that started with a lightning storm which, when we had a smokejumper base, would have been handled by two jumpers for each fire.
The USFS said, after this fire developed into a fiasco, that there were “no available resources.” Daily manpower reports show over 100 smokejumpers available at various bases and a large number of ground crews.
In recent articles in “Smokejumper” magazine (www.smokejumpers.com/magazine), I have written about fires in Montana and Oregon that cost the taxpayers $136 million and burned 116,000 acres. What is a common factor in all three of these fires? Lack of early initial attack — all could have been stopped with quick action. They could have been contained as very small fires.
Even if the acres burned had met the USFS goals for annual managed acres burned, there is a larger problem — smoke. Many parts of the Western US have been and will be under smoke for months if this continues.
Jeffrey Pierce, Professor of Atmospheric Science, Colorado State: “The number of deaths from chronic inhalation of wildfire smoke could increase to more than 40,000 per year by the end of the 21st century, up from around 15,000 per year today.”
Nowhere in USFS documents can I find information on the effect of wildfire smoke on public health. The health of the public is the problem of another agency, not theirs. The deaths of people from smoke are not instantaneous — they accumulate over a period of years.
There are better ways to manage our forests — create a biomass industry, create 300,000 jobs. But that is a topic for another article.
Can we afford to stand by? Our congresspeople in the West are not demanding a change. Get our elected representatives into action!
Chuck Sheley is a Chico resident and editor of “Smokejumper” magazine.