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Thoughts on past & current Forest Service Fire Policies.

September 6 2017 at 12:17 PM
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Ray Brooks  (Login raybrooks)

I am starting to fondly remember the good old days, before about 1995, when the U.S. Forest Service fought every fire & fought them hard, since forest fires were evil.

I worked summers 1969 - 1972 on Forest Service fire crews, & I remember those days fondly, due to the evil fires I put out & the great paychecks I received, that I used to pay most all of my college expenses while achieving a degree in Forest Resource Management.

Since the mid 1990’s revelation that forests should burn at regular intervals, profoundly changed U.S. Forest Service fire policy, our summer Idaho skies have often been smoky & our old growth forests have mostly vanished.

Current fire policy seems unhealthy for humans, & of course we are also producing lots of carbon dioxide through fires, to contribute to global warming. Here’s a brief history on how we got to our present wildfire policies.

The Great Fire of 1910 (also commonly referred to as the Big Burn) was a wildfire that burned about three million acres in northeast Washington, northern Idaho, and western Montana in 1910. The firestorm burned over two days, August 20–21, and killed 87 people, mostly firefighters. It is believed to be the largest, although not the deadliest, forest fire in U.S. history. The outcome was to highlight firefighters as public heroes while raising public awareness surrounding national nature conservation. The extensive burned area was approximately the size of the state of Connecticut.

At the time of the Big Burn, the U.S. Forest Service had only existed for 5 years & was not well organized for fire-fighting. Before then, forests in the Northern Rockies had burned regularly for millions of years, contributing to the dominance of “fire-species” like Lodgepole Pine, that require fire in order to flourish. Since the arrival of white settlers in the 1860’s, there had been intensive logging in the area & still more fires had been set by settlers to “clear land.”

In spite of that history of constant forest fires, the Big Burn happened & shaped a Forest Service that considered forest fires to be evil & a public who supported immediate suppression of every forest fire. That attitude continued until the 1990’s, when the Forest Service did a sudden “about-face” on the subject of fire-suppression. The 1995 National Fire plan, per this PDF, details those changes.https://naldc.nal.usda.gov/download/41970/PDF

“The “Federal Wildland Fire Management Policy” addressed the role of fire as a natural disturbance and moved fire planning toward integration with resource management. Natural ignitions could be managed to achieve natural resource benefits and maintain fire dependent ecosystems.”

I agree the Forest Service went a little too-far with its policy of total suppression of every fire, from 1910 to 1995, but the new policy of letting fires burn untouched in Wilderness Areas can also be a mistake, if those fires are allowed to become big smoke producers, destroy scenic values, or become huge & cross Wilderness boundaries to threaten property outside National Forest lands. Wilderness fires also affect the stability of fragile & steep mountainsides, which later landslide into streams & further threaten our already threatened anadromous fishes.

We likely don’t need to go back to immediate suppression of every wildfire, but let it burn policies should be re-examined in light of current damage done to our environment & health.

But hey! How about these Idaho fire-smoke sunsets!
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