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Politicians Just Blow Smoke Over Wildfires

May 22, 2003|Charles Palmer | Charles Palmer is a Montana-based smokejumper with the U.S. Forest Service.

In recent years, it seems each Western state has taken its turn at the center of large-scale wildfires: New Mexico and Montana in 2000, Colorado and Oregon in 2002.

In 2002 alone, the U.S. Forest Service spent $1.2 billion fighting fires. In contrast, fire-suppression costs for all federal agencies totaled just $256 million in 1997. Clearly, "the price of playing poker" has risen dramatically.

As the expenses associated with fire suppression have risen, the debate over how best to manage our public lands with regard to forest health has intensified.

Tuesday's White House press conference and the subsequent debate and passage of the Healthy Forests Restoration Act by the House are recent examples of how some politicians and advocacy groups have used wildfires as a springboard to promote agendas for increased logging on our public lands.

More logging will lessen the effect of these conflagrations and make them easier to control, we are told. However, research on the benefits of logging in controlling wildfires has been equivocal.

Decisions as weighty and full of impact as logging our prime public forests and wild lands should be based on solid science, not on what some politicians think would be best for our economy. What we need are not Stihl and Husqvarna chainsaws but, rather, a powerful tool of another kind: education.

Each year, thousands of us will be on the fire lines, doing our best to manage and control these blazes. More and more, we find ourselves working in what is termed the wild-land/urban interface. As people build houses in remote locations closer to forested and less-developed areas, more and more structures (and people) find themselves in harm's way when fires burn. For instance, in 1996, an Alaska wildfire claimed 344 structures. During the historic 2000 fire season, 861 structures were lost nationwide.

Firefighters have a chart of 13 different fuel models, ranging from grass to brush to slash debris left after logging operations. Some firefighters have surreptitiously added a 14th member to the fuel chart: homes built next to fire-prone forests in the wild-land/urban interface areas.

Those who elect to live in the wild-land/urban interface must know the steps they can take to reduce the chances that their houses or cabins will be lost because of fire. A home in the trees is beautiful, but that beauty comes with a price when fires burn.

If logging is to be done, it should be here in the wild-land/urban interface, and it should be selective.

Other actions can also be taken: keeping woodpiles and propane tanks away from structures, avoiding cedar shake or other flammable roofing materials and creating defensible spaces between the structure and any combustible materials.

Such tactics are more than good suggestions; they are an obligation for those who build in the forest. Yet no house can be entirely "fireproof." Structures will be lost when burning conditions become extreme.

Further training is needed for professional wild-land firefighters. Additionally, research of the kind undertaken at the Forest Service Intermountain Fire Sciences Laboratory -- which has found that modifying the home and its surroundings within 200 feet can effectively reduce risk -- is necessary to increase our knowledge base.

Wildfires are a natural process, and despite our best efforts, they choose when and where they will burn. Fire is as much a part of living in the West as open spaces, friendly people and beautiful scenery. If the conditions are right, fires will burn, often regardless of whether an area has been previously logged. Just as other Americans endure tornadoes and hurricanes, the West must live with fire.

We don't need wholesale road building and logging on our public lands. Instead, we need to increase our understanding of fire through research and education of firefighters, homeowners and the general public. We must resist the temptation to be swayed by politicians and others who attempt to politicize wildfire and use it as a means to achieve economic goals.

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