Penny-pinching erases progress on restoring fire’s role in forest health

REUTERS/Jim Urquhart
Green plants grow at the base of a tree destroyed by fire near Mammoth Hot Springs in Yellowstone National Park.

To read the Minnesota-flavored coverage of new rules for fighting fire in U.S. national forests, you might think a longstanding “let it burn” policy had been sensibly remade in response to some of the big, marquee fires of recent years.

In fact, roughly the opposite is true:

After a long struggle to adopt firefighting policies that respect both natural forces and the American taxpayer, the U.S. Forest Service has caved under short-term financial pressure and abandoned a set of reforms that had lasted less than 20 years.

A spate of stories last week seems to have been touched off by an article in the Duluth News-Tribune (subscription required), which opened this way:

Nearly one year after a tiny wilderness fire exploded into Minnesota’s largest forest fire in more than 70 years, a temporary U.S. Forest Service policy will now put that kind of fire out before it can grow.

Forest supervisors across the 193 million-acre national forest system have been directed to attack and snuff wilderness fires so money, personnel, aircraft and other equipment aren’t tied up fighting fires that started small and grew out of control.

The directive has put on hold the usual Forest Service fire policy to often let fires burn across the agency’s 429 wilderness areas that cover more than 36 million acres.

The story goes on to quote Brenda Halter, supervisor on Superior National Forest, as saying that record-breaking fire actually had nothing to do with driving the policy change — then uses it anyway to explain the management shift:

If the same policy had been in place last year, the Pagami Creek Fire would have been extinguished days after it started and never made headlines.

That fire started on Aug. 18 with a lightning strike and, like hundreds of others, burned slowly at first. Most of those lightning fires in the 1.1 million-acre Boundary Waters Canoe Area Wilderness smolder and die without getting big. And even if the fires grow, Forest Service policy has been to allow them to burn to help renew the forest, a cycle that has shaped the forest for millennia.

But by the time Forest Service fire officials realized the Pagami Creek fire could grow too big and possibly escape the wildernessthanks to unprecedented dry, hot and windy conditionsit was too late. On Sept. 12 alone it exploded across 70,000 acres as crews and campers scrambled to get out of the way. It took another month, nearly 1,000 firefighters from across the country and autumn rains and snow before the fire was officially declared out, having burned across 93,000 acres. The battle cost more than $23 million.

An Associated Press version of the story, filed from Minneapolis, also used the example of Pagami Creek to explain the policy shift, and so pictures of the Boundary Waters in flames appeared with the  AP piece in papers as far away as Miami:

As for the “usual policy,” now abandoned, the AP explained:

For years, the policy has been that supervisors on Forest Service land can opt to let fires burn if they start naturally, usually by lightning strikes, and are not a threat to nearby homes or other assets. Scientists view fires as a natural part of forest regeneration, making room for new growth and also diminishing future threat of larger fires by clearing areas of fuel sources.

“For years,” in that paragraph, refers to the period since 1995. That’s when the Forest Service abandoned nearly a century of aggressive firefighting whose legendary intensity, thoroughness and bravado were described in internal shorthand as “The 10 AM Rule” — an expectation that crews would extinguish all fires by midmorning of the day after they were first called in by spotters.

This was a fantastically expensive policy, and impossible to plan or budget for with any reliability. Not that this mattered, really.

More than one Forest Service official has told me over the years that the agency’s local and regional managers simply spent whatever they felt  was needed to put out all those fires, and if the total outlays broke the budget — which they often did — then Congress, come winter, wrote a check for the difference. From a political viewpoint, putting out all the fires was easier than picking and choosing. 

But universal fire suppression was relentlessly destructive to forest health as woodlands were deprived of fire’s many benefits in removing dead material, renewing wildlife habitat and perpetuating certain fire-dependent species.

And so the Forest Service began to let most fires burn, as long as they didn’t threaten lives or developed property, and even to initiate “prescribed fire” for controlled burning of areas where fire had been excluded too long.

The 10 AM Rule was over 90 when it was retired. If the Wildland Fire Rule of 1995 had been a person, it wouldn’t even have been old enough to vote when it was dropped May 25 in a budget-minded memo from a Forest Service deputy chief, James Hubbard.

The reason: It’s more economical to fight a bunch of little fires than a few big ones. Which was more or less the justification for the 10 AM Rule, even when budgets were essentially unlimited.

I found the link to Hubbard’s memo in an excellent article by Richard Manning, a Montanan who has been writing about fire in the national forests since the 1980s and last week laid out his perspective for OnEarth, a publication of the Natural Resources Defense Council.

Rather than seizing on a fire like Pagami Creek to illustrate the policy shift, Manning reasonably opted for a more typical scenario:

On July 12, lightning sparked a forest fire in western Montana’s Bob Marshall Wilderness Complexa place where wildfires are common this time of year. Usually, if they’re small and don’t threaten to get out of control, the U.S. Forest Service will let them burn….

So what happened last month was unusual: the U.S. Forest Service, which manages the 1.5 million-acre Bob Marshall Wilderness Complex and an additional 35 million acres of federally designated wilderness land nationwide, ordered a full-on attack of the fire by smokejumpers, bucket-bearing helicopters, and four lumbering slurry bombers that each dumped more than 2,000 gallons of red chemical fire retardant on an ecosystem that is otherwise treated as pristine.

This has been happening all across the West this summer, as the Forest Service throws its already-thin firefighting resources at blazes that in previous years would have been allowed to spread naturally and burn out on their own. The stated reason is cost: the Forest Service is so worried that the hot, dry conditions will cause one or more of those small fires to burn out of controlconsuming not just acres of forest, but also the agency’s strapped budget — that it’s willing to pour money and resources into fighting blazes that threaten little and are usually considered healthy for the forests.

Manning reports that Hubbard acknowledged, in an interview, that the new policy is not good for forest health or for the taxpayer, at least in the long term. But here’s the situation:

After 90 years of fire suppression and a scant 17 of fire tolerance, large areas of the national forests remain vulnerable to unusually large, intense fires — and, as we’ve seen this spring in places like Colorado’s Waldo Canyon, our changing climate’s shift to hotter, drier summer regimes appears to be amplifying the risks still further.

Meanwhile, the Forest Service remains obliged to protecting dwellings and other structures from fire. Even if those buildings are sited in fire-prone places. Even if they’re designed and built without regard to fire vulnerability.

Even, for that matter, if their owners refuse to undertake the modest measures – like clearing brush from a small perimeter, or installing automated sprinklers —  that Forest Service experts have proved repeatedly can keep a house from burning even as a raging forest fire passes all around it.

To meet that obligation in a time of tight budgets, Hubbard’s memo advises that “aggressive initial attack is often the best suppression strategy to keep unwanted wildfires small and costs down.”

In other words, we’re back to putting out pretty much all fires as quickly as possible because it may be cheaper, some years, to fight a slew of little fires than a few big ones.

But only if you take the short view. As the Pagami Creek fire and so many others have taught us, you can’t really prevent big forest fires. The best you can hope for is to postpone them for a while.

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