‘There is a better way’
The ‘military-industrial’ approach to fire suppression doesn’t see the forest for the trees
As tens of millions of taxpayer dollars get expended in efforts to “suppress” fires in the North State, the time is opportune to examine the history of fire and fire suppression in the Klamath Mountains in order to determine if there are lessons for today that can be learned from the experiences of the past 25 years.
For residents of the Klamath Mountains, our first experience with large fires and large Forest Service fire suppression was the Hog Fire of 1977. Most forest residents saw the jobs and income that flowed from that suppression effort, and the salvage logging that followed, as an unexpected boon.
But a few of us who had worked in the suppression effort also were alarmed by the size and destructive force of the massive backfires that Forest Service managers ordered lit in a futile attempt to stop the wildfire. This alarm was reinforced by natives and old-timers who had lived with fire for many decades without resorting to armies of non-local firefighters and massive amounts of equipment.
We did not know it then, but what we experienced with the Hog Fire was an early stage in the militarization, industrialization and nationalization of firefighting.
That approach to firefighting has grown exponentially since 1977. Today, any and all semblance of local control of large-fire suppression has been stripped away. We are left with a massive, incredibly expensive, military-style forest firefighting regime complete with no-bid contractors, air and ground attack components, private mercenaries and a centralized command structure that views local and traditional knowledge and local concerns as public-relations issues to be managed, not honored.
In spite of the orgies of waste, all this would arguably be worth the cost to taxpayers and the disruption of forest communities if it were effective. But the fire bureaucracies’ dirty secret is that, in rugged mountain areas like the Klamath Mountains, efforts at fire control and suppression have never been successful in putting out the big fires.
Moreover, these failed suppression invasions have generally resulted in more smoke, more intensively burned land and significantly more erosion and ecosystem destruction than would have occurred had the fires been allowed to burn naturally when, as is typical, they were burning far from forest communities and residences.
The best documented example of the destructiveness of large-fire military-industrial suppression actions is the Big Bar Fire in 1999. Extensive analysis of Forest Service suppression-effort records by forest activists revealed that the fires that threatened Willow Creek, Denny and Hoopa and forced evacuations of citizens because of smoke-related health threats were actually backfires ordered by non-local “incident commanders.”
For “safety reasons,” these backfires were lit where road access was available, which was many miles from the actual wildfire. The roads also meant that these administrative fires were lit near areas that had been logged. When the winds picked up and reversed direction, the non-natural fires entered recently logged lands, where they blew up into firestorms and began their run toward nearby towns and hamlets. Mercifully, however, the rains came and the towns were spared.
The Forest Service never acknowledged that it was the backfires they ordered and lit and not the natural forest fires in the Trinity Alps that threatened the towns. Instead they used the threat and the public’s fear of wildfire to argue for massive post-fire salvage logging and against wilderness designation. Forest Service managers even went so far as to use post-fire “emergency fire-line rehabilitation” funds to log the Big Bar fire lines after fall rains had put the fires out. This logging accelerated the massive erosion that military-industrial fire suppression had already created in another failed attempt to suppress a large, backcountry fire.
Since a series of fires in 1987, I have walked and studied all the large-fire areas of the Klamath Mountains. In all cases, what I learned was consistent with what is reported above for the Big Bar Fire. Even under the most severe fire-risk conditions, as we saw in 1987, Forest Service post-fire data and other scientific studies reveal that most of the naturally burned areas had low-intensity fire and that most of the trees—especially the large old-growth trees—survived the fire.
Walking the newly burned forests I learned that—at least in the rugged Klamath Mountains—it is not natural wildfire but military-industrial fire suppression that does most of the damage to forest ecosystems and watersheds and poses the greatest threats to forest communities. The fact that those in charge do not know the land or the history of fire suppression in these mountains constitutes a clear, present and ongoing threat to the forests and the communities.
There is a better way.
I first experienced it in 1987. Because there were so many fires locally and across the West that year, there was no way the Forest Service could actively seek to suppress them all. Therefore, a significant number of 1987 fires burning in the Klamath Mountains were “loose herded.” What this means is that a small, locally led crew was dispatched to observe the fires up close and, when opportunities presented, to steer the fires into rocky, sparsely vegetated and more remote areas and away from towns and homesteads.
Allowing backcountry fires to burn unless and until they move toward residential areas frees up suppression resources to concentrate on the forest-community interface areas where fires can and should be quickly and aggressively controlled. The restrained, local approach also results in reduced impacts to forest ecosystems and considerably less post-fire erosion and watershed degradation.
This strategy—local leadership working with rather than against natural, backcountry fires—is both feasible and effective. But it is unlikely to be adopted on a large scale any time soon. That is because the power and profits of the massive fire bureaucracy and the army of no-bid contractors depend on the continuation of the command-and-control military-industrial approach to fire suppression, and because politicians can manipulate the public’s fear of wildfire to their own advantage.
Positive change will only come when the citizens wake up and demand a return to a rational and measured approach to managing wildfires. Until that day, forest communities, forest ecosystems and forest watersheds will continue to suffer from misguided and destructive Forest Service fire-suppression boondoggles. Wake up and smell the smoke, then contact your senators and representatives to demand a rational, measured and locally controlled approach to managing natural forest fires.