Burn Baby Burn
|By Sandra F. Mitchell|
|Tuesday, 30 October 2007 08:00|
As forests have become legally "protected" from fire-fuel management the frequency and ferocity of infernos has dramatically increased. Has the Forest Service adopted a "make it burn" policy?
The United States Forest Service seems to have adopted Sherman‘s “scorched earth” policy. Each summer we see hundreds of thousands of acres of our priceless public lands seared, wildlife killed or displaced, air polluted with smoke, homes burned to the ground, entire communities threatened and millions of our tax dollars spent on suppression. Sherman at least had a strategic goal in mind, ending a war, but the ultimate goal of today’s wildfire policy contributes to the accomplishment of the Wildlands Project.
In years past the firefighter’s mission was clear and unequivocal—gear up to put the fire out as soon as possible. An emphasis was placed on fast initial attack, prevention and aggressive suppression. Now we sometimes see days pass with no suppression action while small fires become big. Attack is often too little, too late. Containment relies heavily on burnouts from distant firelines and use of aircraft for water and retardant drops. Sometimes fire is contained and sometimes it is allowed to burn to meet other objectives like improving the health of the forest.
But what about the health of the citizens who live near the fires. According to Jay O’Laughlin, Director of the Policy Analysis Group, College of Natural Resources, University of Idaho, carbon dioxide emissions from the forest fires of 2004 totaled 392 million tons, 6% of all our nation’s energy related emissions. Smoke from forest fires contains a particle that has serious human health implications, particularly for those with respiratory problems. This particle, identified as PM 2.5, is monitored by the Environmental Protection Agency (EPA) from three sources: fuel combustion, transportation and industrial. The EPA does not monitor Forest fires because fires are considered an uncontrollable source. Forest fires in 2004 dispersed 2.6 million tons of this particulate, an amount equal to all of the monitored sources combined.
While the EPA considers forest fires a source that is natural and beyond their control, that assumption is only partly correct. Forests are vast storehouses of energy and carbon compounds. This energy and carbon will someday be released by decomposition or by fire, and fire is the dominant vehicle for that release in the Northwest. In designated wilderness, we have no option but to allow the forces of nature to shape the ecology of the landscape—and fire is nature’s first choice to get that job done. However, we have other choices outside of wilderness. We can manage that energy release through good forest management. We can sequester the carbon in various forest products and reduce the fuel loads that result in massive, uncontrollable wildfires. In doing so, we can cut the emissions of carbon compounds and particulate into the air, while pumping millions of dollars into our economy.
The environmental community is normally concerned about carbon sequestration and air quality, but is silent on the issue of forest fires. Where is the outrage we see with other related issues, such as field burning? Instead we hear of the benefits of the big fires while efforts to manage the forests and reduce fuel loads are blocked at every opportunity. The inconsistency should be obvious.
And what about the health of our economy? Fires provide some immediate, short-term income for individuals and nearby communities, but generate no sustained revenue. While the fires are burning the air becomes nearly unbreathable and who wants to tour our forests and wildlands to see smoke? Tourism, water quality, fisheries and extraction industries suffer in the long term because the resources that attract those interests are gone. Fires don’t respect riparian zones or old growth. The cost to the economies of adjacent communities and to the State from these out of control fires on federal lands runs into the millions of dollars.
So, what can we do about the fires? We can review our position on fire suppression and place more emphasis once again on initial attack and quick containment. We can also take a hard look at suppression methods and policies, allowing fire personnel some discretion in decision making and remove the cloud of criminal action if they should inadvertently make an error. Most important, we can take aggressive action to prevent gigantic, destructive wildfires. We can allow the professionals we hire to manage our forests to do their jobs in an efficient and cost effective manner. We need to reduce fuel loading, thus cutting the intensity and scope of fires when they occur. We can sequester the carbon that would otherwise go up in smoke in the form of useful and valuable products.
Quite frankly Congress got us into this mess with a series of well meaning but badly written laws in the 1960's and ‘70's. These laws have become the basis of litigation that many of today’s so-called environmental groups are only too happy to pursue. As a result management of our federal forests is in gridlock. Today 48% of the Forest Service’s budget goes to fighting massive fires every summer; endless planning, appeals and litigation gobble up most of the remainder. Congress put us in this stew and only Congress can get us out.
Burn Baby Burn by Sandra F. Mitchell
Sandra F. Mitchell is the Public Lands Director, Idaho State Snowmobile Association. She can be contacted at email@example.com