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The Real and Unexpected Threat From Forest Fires
By Felice Pace, My Word Editorial
Eureka Times Standard, August 20, 2006

As fires burn in the Klamath backcountry, it's a good time to look over the past 25 years for any fire suppression lessons to be learned.

Our first experience with large fire suppression was the Hog Fire of 1977. The firefighting jobs and salvage logging that followed were seen by most as a boon. But some were alarmed by the destruction caused by massive backfires which Forest Service managers ordered lit in a futile attempt to stop the wildfire. This alarm was reinforced by natives and old-timers who had lived with fire for decades without resort to an army of non-local firefighters and lighting massive backfires.

We did not know it then, but what we experienced with the Hog Fire was an early stage in the nationalization and militarization of firefighting. That approach has grown exponentially. Today we have a massive, incredibly expensive, military-style forest firefighting regime with no-bid contractors, air and ground attack components, private mercenaries and a centralized command structure which views local and traditional knowledge and concerns as public relations issues to be managed, not honored.

In spite of the orgies of waste, all this would arguably be worth the cost and community disruption if it were effective. But the fire bureaucracy's dirty secret is that in rugged mountain areas like the Klamath, efforts at forest fire control and suppression have never been successful in putting out large fires. Failed suppression invasions have generally resulted in more smoke, more intensively burned land and significantly more erosion and ecosystem destruction than if the fires been allowed to burn naturally when, as is typical, they were far from forest communities.

The list of Klamath fires larger than 30,000 acres on which military-industrial style suppression failed to put out the fire include many events, such as the 1994 Dillon Fire, the 1996 Specimen Fire, the 1999 Big Bar Fires and the 2002 Biscuit Fire. In each case, tens of millions were spent and massive environmental impacts were generated. Each time, fall rain and snow, not suppression, put out the fire.

The best documented example of the destructiveness of large fire military-industrial suppression is the Big Bar Fire. Extensive analysis of Forest Service records revealed that fires which threatened Willow Creek, Denny and Hoopa were in fact backfires ordered by non-local “incident commanders.” For “safety reasons” these backfires were lit where road access was available, many miles from the actual wildfire. The roads also meant these administrative fires were lit near logged areas. When winds picked up and reversed direction, the fires entered recently logged lands where they “blew up” into fire storms and began moving toward communities. Mercifully, rains came and the towns were spared.

The Forest Service never acknowledged that it was backfires they lit and not the natural fires in the Trinity Alps that threatened towns. Instead they used the public's fear of wildfire to argue for massive salvage logging and against wilderness designation. Forest Service managers even used “emergency fire-line rehabilitation” funds to log the Big Bar fire lines after fall rains put the fires out. This logging accelerated the erosion which military-industrial fire suppression had created.

At minimum 25 percent of the total burned area was non-natural backfires and burnouts. These suppression-effort fires on average burned hotter and killed more trees per acre compared to natural wildfire.

Beginning after the 1987 fires, I have walked and studied all large fire areas of the Klamath Mountains. In all cases, what I learned was consistent with what is reported above. Even under the most severe conditions as in 1987, Forest Service post-fire data and scientific studies reveal that most naturally burned areas had low intensity fire and that most trees -- especially large old-growth trees -- survived the fire. Walking the newly burned forests I learned that it is not natural wildfire but military-industrial fire suppression which does most of the damage. The fact that those in charge do not know the land or local fire history constitutes a clear threat to forests and their communities.

As I write the Forest Service has already lit or is seriously contemplating lighting large backfires in the Orleans Mountain Roadless Area. Locals who know the forest's history have argued against the backfires. But firefighting's entrenched bureaucracy appears incapable of acknowledging and using local knowledge and experience. And so we appear doomed to repeat again the cycle of mismanagement and community conflict we've seen 1987.

There is a better way. Because there were so many fires in 1987 there was no way the Forest Service could actively seek to suppress them all. Therefore, a significant number of 1987 fires were “loose herded.” Small local crews were dispatched to observe the fires up close and, when opportunities presented, steer them into sparsely vegetated areas far from people. Allowing backcountry fires to burn frees resources to concentrate on fires near communities where they can be effectively controlled because there is good access. The restrained, local approach also results in reduced impacts to forest ecosystems and watersheds and reduced erosion.

This approach -- local leadership working with rather than against natural, backcountry fires -- is feasible and effective. But it is unlikely to be adopted on a large scale. That is because the power and profits of the massive fire bureaucracy and the army of no-bid contractors depend on continuing the command-and-control, military-industrial approach to forest fire suppression.

Parallels with the federal approach to world problems are striking. As with the U.S. global-dominance-through-war machine, positive change will only come when citizens demand a return to a rational and measured approach to managing wildfires. Until that day, forest communities, forest ecosystems and forest watersheds will suffer from misguided and destructive Forest Service fire suppression boondoggles. Wake up folks, smell the smoke, then contact your senators and representatives to demand a rational, measured and locally controlled approach to managing natural forest fires!

Felice Pace has resided in the Klamath Mountains and has hiked and studied its backcountry forests, including logged and burned areas, since 1975. A founder of the Klamath Forest Alliance, he lives in Klamath, CA

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