The Aug. 18 Associated Press story “Forest Service now jumps on wildfires” with quotes by Andy Stahl, executive director of Forest Service Employees for Environmental Ethics, would be cause for concern if he were not so naive or lacking in real firefighting experience. Stahl criticizes the Forest Service’s temporary policy of putting out all fires of all sizes.
Judging actions such as the complexities of fighting wildfires requires a serious expertise in such.
My opinion is, “Where have you been, Forest Service, for the past 15-plus years of backing away from fires?” It is well past time that the Forest Service step up and aggressively fight fires. Yes, fires can be allowed to crawl around in higher elevations when spring conditions allow such prescriptions, but when summer drying occurs, it is time to put them out, period. And, during late summer, when all fuel is dried and ready to explode from fire ignitions, do not hesitate to be aggressive. It is irresponsible to do anything less. Simply observe what is occurring with recent fires in Eastern Washington and Oregon, and Northern California.
Stahl was so cavalier with his comments about New Mexico’s Gila National Forest fires that he did not even mention the pending devastation of mass flooding and erosion that will wipe out the small villages below the fireline this winter. In his reference to the lost homes in the Colorado blazes, he fails to mention that many of those homes were built deep within the woods on purchased mining claims, where no fire protection is afforded, regardless of policy, and many of the homeowners expected the Forest Service to treat the forest surrounding their new homes with public monies, because they could not get insurance coverage.
The consequences of catastrophic wildfires are much more than burned trees and brush. Massive and predictable erosion and debris flows will reach lower canyons and rivers. If post-fire conditions are not mitigated, lower-elevation town sites along creeks and rivers are at great risk of being torn from their foundations from the torrent that is sure to come.
Make forests more resilient
The Forest Service tried something new in the 1990s with a passive fire policy in an attempt to limit risk and save money. It has not proven effective. It is time to return to effective firefighting: aggressive where warranted and passive where serious threat does not exist, and most importantly, back to fighting fires at night, when conditions are superb to gain control. There is much greater risk of fire growth during daylight hours, when hot temperatures peak with wind velocities.
As for Stahl’s comments about letting fires burn to make our landscapes “more fire-resilient,” that might be easy for him to say, but I would urge him talk to the residents in and around those fires — those who have everything to lose — to see how they feel about letting fires burn.
What will make our forests more resilient is what Stahl’s past organization affiliation has fought hard to end when he was a member of the Sierra Club: forest management, including logging. We need a forest stewardship through the use of seral stage management, a process driven by wildlife priorities that reflect all ages of vegetation in varying amounts across vast landscapes. More wood would be produced from our forests; more salvage of fire-prone timber would occur; which means more jobs; and priority would be given to all species of wildlife, and not just the chosen few dictated by the Endangered Species Act.
Our public forests would be at much less risk to wildfires; our wildlife would be more diverse and provided for with mixed types of habitat; and crown fires (those in the tree tops) would drop to the ground and be contained, because there would not be a continuous canopy cover.
A forest is constantly changing and must be managed in a sustainable manner. This is all doable with a new direction for federal forests.
Ted Stubblefield of Ridgefield is a retired supervisor at Gifford Pinchot National Forest.