Our Trial By Fire

In August 2007, firefighters battled 10 separate fires along a local access road to Interstate 90.

All of this underscores the success of one of the most controversial policies ever hatched in public lands management: the Forest Service's wilderness fire policy. This simply reasons that fire has always been a part of the northern Rockies and ought to be allowed to go on playing its role of dissipating energy in forest ecosystems. Absent fire, the energy does not go away, but piles up to be vented later. Fuel that would have burned off in minor fires accumulates to create major ones.

The idea became popularly and bluntly known as the let-it-burn policy. It has been the subject of fierce debate both within and outside the Forest Service and other land management agencies for more than 30 years. Yet in light of today's conditions, the policy has been validated.

"It's the most successful resource program the northern region has," says George Weldon, deputy director for fire, aviation, and air in the Forest Service's Northern Region, the agency's top fire guy in Montana and northern Idaho. He makes his case with a map showing the last 10 years' worth of fire in and around the Selway-Bitterroot Wilderness, which straddles the Idaho-Montana state line. (This was the scene of the Forest Service's first experimental wildland fire, in 1972, then an act of heresy; Daniels was the supervisor who let it burn.)

For nearly 30 years, the let-it-burn policy has allowed fire to run its course only in formally designated wilderness--about 16 percent of the total Forest Service area in the West--and in national parks. Even then, fires deemed capable of breaking out of the wilderness are routinely fought. The wilderness fires show on the map as black specks, while those outside are big, black blobs, orders of magnitude larger.

I interviewed Weldon a couple of days after a weekend of rain ended the worst of our fire season in September. During the course of the preceding three months, he had commanded the spending of $165 million in the northern Rockies, only a fraction of the $1.3 billion spent nationwide on fires by all federal agencies. He ordered up the helicopters, air tankers, boots on the ground, a militaristic enterprise with corresponding Pentagon-like fiscal appetites. Facing progressively hotter fire seasons from here on out, what will he do? Surge?

The rolling catastrophe of fire that is our western future owes its existence to two factors. One is global warming, and the other was of the Forest Service's own making. In 1910, just five years after the agency was founded, fire in northern Idaho roared to life before the wind and burned over most of the northern part of the state and western Montana, three million acres in all, one contiguous wienie roast. The fire shocked the nation with overstated headlines about a "timber famine," so the agency began putting out all fires. Over the next half century, the Forest Service trained firefighters, invented smoke jumpers, acquired an air force, and enforced with sackings a policy that said all new fires were to be extinguished by 10 a.m. on the day following their start.

Fire suppression also created a swaggering subculture, crews that called themselves hotshots, and tough-guy smoke jumpers, men--mostly they were men in those days--who believed they commanded nature. "We were trained that we could put out any fire," Weldon says. "All we needed was more air tankers, more smoke jumpers, and more hotshot crews. More smoke jumpers, more air tankers, and more hotshot crews wouldn't have put these fires out this year."

Weldon himself was a smoke jumper for eight years at the pinnacle of Forest Service hubris. "In the 1970s and 1980s we were able to basically exclude fires from these fire-dependent ecosystems mainly because it rained a lot," he says. "We thought it was because of us. But mainly it was because it used to rain."

On July 6, 2007, the temperature in Missoula reached 107, the highest ever recorded there. The daily average high for the month was 96.5 degrees, 12.9 degrees above normal. Throughout western Montana, July 2007 was the hottest month on record. Total rainfall was 0.03 inch. The first half of August was almost as bad, leaving live trees holding less moisture than kiln-dried lumber. "Once these fires get started we don't have all that much influence over them," Weldon says.

The major lesson for the year, he adds, came in one of those big fires in the Bob Marshall, the Ahorn, which the Forest Service attacked because of fears it would rage out onto the plains to bite the town of Augusta, the same town threatened by Orville Daniels's fire in 1988, a town with a memory.

"[The Ahorn] was a fire we went after very aggressively," Weldon says. "We put in a couple loads of smoke jumpers, a hotshot crew, aviation assets. We spent a lot of money on that fire. We exposed a lot of folks. We crashed a helicopter. We had a shelter deployment on that fire." (The reference is to a trapped firefighter who pulls open a pouch always on his belt, rips open the metallic fabric pup tent inside, and huddles in it while the fire roars over, hoping it will pass quickly enough to allow oxygen to return to ground level before he suffocates. Among some, the shelter is known as a shake-and-bake.) Despite all this, Weldon says, "We influenced that fire very minimally, and we spent $18 million trying."

Federal and state agencies fight fires this way today because of politics. In the face of two decades' worth of clear evidence that it is a stupid thing to do, people continue to build houses and whole towns in or near forests, often taking no precautions such as thinning trees or adopting fire-resistant construction methods. Headwaters Economics, a nonprofit group in Bozeman, Montana, completed a study toward summer's end that said if the current pattern of building continues in the northern Rockies, firefighting costs could quickly consume nearly all the Forest Service's current annual budget of $4.5 billion. Yet residents insist on protection, and politicians, local and otherwise, have very little stomach for letting houses burn.

President George Bush arrived on the scene of October's Southern California fires while the flames still raged, to promise that government would ensure our security. And Governor Arnold Schwarzenegger vowed that with federal and state help, Californians would be able to "rebuild this area as quickly as possible," repeating the message he had delivered to Congress in 2003 after fire had burned some of the exact same acres. "I'm looking for federal money for the people, for the victims of the fire," he testified then, "so that people can rebuild their homes and rebuild their businesses as quickly as possible." That is, rebuild in chaparral, the brush that regrows quickly enough to explode every few years.

Scientists say that the fall fires in California were probably not linked to global warming, but were simply the normal course of events when wet years are followed by drought years and the Santa Ana winds provide a trigger. "That is a fire-prone environment regardless of whether we are in a climate-change scenario," Tom Wordell, a wildland fire analyst at the National Interagency Fire Center in Boise, Idaho, told the Los Angeles Times. "I don't want to be callous, because many people are homeless and suffering, but if you live in a snakepit you're going to get bit."

So if we have not learned prudence in the normal course of events, how will we respond when the fires grow worse--as they will, even in California, with global warming?

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