Fire Wise series part three: 'Only you' can change how we deal with fire

We can protect cabins, make the forests healthier and save money by allowing more fires to burn. Why is it so hard, then, for us to do it?

hdruzin@idahostatesman.com rbarker@idahostatesman.comJuly 27, 2008 

Salmon outnumber people in the rugged backcountry outside McCall where Cris Bent and his wife, Nanci, bought a cabin 33 years ago to immerse themselves in the wild, green landscape.

Today, much of that terrain is black after several large wildfires swept through the area last summer.

Bent, the fire chief for the cabin community of Secesh, agrees with scientists and forest managers that the forest would be healthier if more fires were allowed to burn. But he shares his neighbors' grief at the loss of the forest he loved.

"We're here because we like trees," he said. "If we didn't, we'd move to the desert."

More than 60 years of Smokey Bear still keeps federal agencies from letting more wildfires burn, despite scientific evidence that forests need fire - and that homes can be saved by cheaper, more effective means. Loggers don't want to watch harvestable trees destroyed. Hunters don't want to lose traditional hunting grounds. Hikers, cabin owners, mountain bikers, fishermen and anyone else with a favorite spot in the vast wildlands of the West don't want that spot to change.

Smokey Bear, one of the world's most recognizable icons, persuaded generations of Americans that fire is synonymous with unhealthy wildlands. But all along, the popular fire suppression program was allowing trees to age and die, insects to multiply and spread, and underbrush to build up in the forest, all of which have been fueling the mega-fires we see today.

Still, doing the right thing is not as simple as the science might suggest.

Wildfires come with human costs. They belch choking smoke for weeks at a time, close roads and squeeze businesses, destroy homes and blacken cherished landscapes.

John McCarthy, a wildfire expert with the conservation group the Wilderness Society, which advocates letting more fires burn in the forest, knows environmental concerns can't trump all else.

"You can't look at the ecological values of fire in isolation from the social and economic concerns," he said.

THE APPEARANCE OF DOING SOMETHING

The chop of a propeller overhead gives Susan Matlock a flashback to the darker, smokier days of 2007.

"Every time you hear the helicopter fly low, you think, 'Oh my God.' "

Buzzing propellers and roaring plane engines were a fixture last year above Matlock's home in Yellow Pine, a tiny forest village east of McCall that had its skies and business blotted out for much of the summer by smoke from raging wildfires. Matlock watched the mountains explode in flames, as 1 million acres burned throughout Central Idaho.

Like many residents in fire-prone areas, Matlock thinks fire managers have abandoned their commitment to fighting fires, even though federal firefighters still extinguish about 98 percent of blazes that start on public lands.

"I still am very adamant that something (needs to change), where they don't just let it burn when it's coming towards towns and homes," she said.

The Bush Administration for years has sought to slow the growth of suppression spending by forcing managers to choose between fighting fires or other spending priorities.

The decisions prompted fire managers to allow some remote fires to burn. But it also drained other resource programs, taking money - and people - needed to oversee timber sales, to help communities prepare for wildfires and to do the controlled burns needed to protect vital habitat.

Fire suppression today constitutes 48 percent of the U.S. Forest Service's $4 billion budget.

Congress' response, though, has been to focus on more money to fight fires. Just this month, the House passed the Forest Land Assistance, Management, and Enhancement Act - the FLAME Act - with wide support. The bill, sponsored by House Natural Resources Committee Chairman Nick Rahall, a West Virginia Democrat, would set up a dedicated fund for federal firefighting.

Rahall and other supporters of the bill say its intent is not to provide more money for fire suppression, though they expect fire costs to rise.

"With our warming climate, unhealthy forests, and homes built where fires occur, the cost of suppressing wildfires will escalate - even as we implement control measures," said Diane Denenberg, communications director for the Council of Western State Foresters. "The question is how we keep those costs from eating up the entire Forest Service and (Department of Interior) budgets."

But some of the debate in the House showed that the decades-long message that demonized forest fires still resonates.

"Real solutions to these deadly and growing wildfires must be found," Sali said.

Even some of the bill's critics said they want more logging and thinning instead of more fire to make forests more "resilient."

"We will continue to see skyrocketing firefighting costs and more damage to our forests, watersheds, and communities unless we take steps to reduce fire risk in our federal forests," said Virginia Republican Rep. Bob Goodlatte.

And regardless of the intent, the dedicated fund could remove the incentives that encourage managers to let ecologically beneficial fires burn.

The heart of the problem, though, is that after decades of debates in the West and in Washington, D.C., the public can't decide what it wants for much of the 600 million acres of public estate, said Stephen Pyne, one of the world's top experts on wildfire and author of "Fire in America."

Do we want natural and unfettered forests? A profitable source of timber and jobs? Something in between?

"In such circumstances, the default setting is suppression," Pyne said. "You have to appear to be doing something."

SAVE THE FOREST, SAVE THE HOMES

Americans can protect the health of forests while protecting houses from burning - and government can make that happen, Pyne and other experts say.

Raging "crown fires" that devastate trees in the forest don't burn through communities. Even sparsely scattered homes have enough roads, power lines, driveways and yards to force fire out of the tops of trees to the ground. And ground fires can be fought far more easily.

Local governments can require fire-resistant construction, "firewise" landscaping that clears trees and brush from within 100 feet of houses and fire retardant roofs. Zoning laws could keep new homes out of fire-prone areas.

Mandatory evacuations could be replaced - Australia has a successful program that teaches people how to defend their property and to safely stay put during a fire.

The federal government could change liability laws and restore the burden to protect people's homes to the homeowners themselves instead of the federal government, Pyne said.

In Featherville, a collection of cabins in the forested mountains north of Mountain Home, Kay Black watched last week as a two-man team trimmed and felled trees and uprooted underbrush around her two-story log cabin in an effort to give any future blazes less fuel.

Black said she was skeptical at first, but she was reassured by seeing that similar projects in town did not ruin the woodsy aesthetic to which she has become accustomed.

"When you see them finished, you can tell you're not going to have this enormous mess," she said.

ONE SURE THING: FIRE WILL EXIST (WELCOMED OR NOT)

For the past 20 years, the forest debate largely has focused on polarizing extremes of commercial logging and aggressive environmentalism.

But Idahoans seem to be coming to consensus on less extreme ways to manage the forest.

Sixty-five percent of Idahoans say they support "controlled burning," compared to 27 percent who oppose it. That's not too different from the 70 percent who support thinning and logging to reduce the threat of fire, according to a poll conducted by the pro-logging Idaho Forest Products Commission in November 2007.

Pyne thinks the solution will have to include many kinds of forest management techniques - including logging, controlled burns, wildfires and combinations of thinning and burning.

"The fire community has not had this kind of debate," Pyne said. "Instead, the choice is presented as between fire's suppression and fire's restoration."

But allowing fires to burn closer to communities is going to take a lot of trust from homeowners, said McCarthy, the Wilderness Society official.

"It's going to be hard to convince people to accept big, hot fires if they're worried their house is going to burn up," he said.

Ultimately, though, the public won't have a choice but to accept wildfire, said Jack Cohen, the Forest Service fire expert who helped develop the new understanding of how fires burn homes. It has always been a part of the West's forests and it is unrealistic to think we can get rid of it.

"Anything we do we need to do with the idea there is going to be fire," Cohen said.

Heath Druzin: 373-6617Rocky Barker: 377-6484

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