Can you guess the COVID infection rate on Forest Service wildfire lines last summer?
Bear in mind, the Forest Service had between 10,000 and 15,000 firefighters on the lines on any given day.
Nope. Two percent.
You read it right: two percent.
Far below the infection rate anywhere else in the United States.
Yes, men and women working on fire lines are spaced far enough apart to be practicing “social distancing.”
But they live in tents in fire camps, eat in common areas and use chemical toilets that are difficult to keep clean in the best of circumstances.
Congratulations to Forest Service leadership that came up with a plan to protect wildland fire crews in barely two months. A two-percent COVID infection rate is a miraculous feat.
Elsewhere, the news concerning the West’s wildfire pandemic is godawful. In round numbers, 10.3 million acres burned – 3.5 million acres above the 10-year average. Thirty-three died in California wildfires, 11 in Oregon. Men, women and children who were overcome by asphyxiating smoke or overrun by wind-driven flames that can outrun birds in flight.
Frankly, we believe the 2020 wildfire season would have been worse had the Forest Service not wisely taken “unplanned” or “managed fire” off the table. For several years running, the agency allowed incident commanders to make a spur of the moment decision to allow wildfires to burn in areas that should have been thinned years ago.
This is like setting fire to your house because you don’t want to make your bed.
NEPA – the National Environmental Policy Act – does not allow spur of the moment decision-making. Every federal action impacting the environment must be studied well in advance; its possible impacts measured and mitigating measures described in great detail.
Environmental Impact Statements often take years to prepare. Incident Commanders often make split-second decisions. Their job is to put out the fire, not do the work Congress and Forest Service leadership would rather not do. Thus, to be very clear, “unplanned” or “managed” fire are illegal. People die. Homes, forests and wildlife habitat are incinerated.
The Internet is already brimming with information concerning the 2020 wildfire season. If you are in the hunt for a summary with lots of graphics, try Wikipedia. https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/2020_Western_United_States_wildfire_season. For a sobering dose of environmental reality, read about the million-plus acre August Complex Fire https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/August Complex_fire
Our “go to” source is the Interagency Fire Center at Boise, Idaho. You can spend hours trolling www.nifc.gov. National and state summaries, statistics, histories. It’s all there in spades.
We are still trying to total up the number of wildland firefighters killed in the line of duty in 2020: on fire lines, in crashing helicopters or airtankers, rushing to the scene or departing exhausted at the end of their shifts. But we can tell you that between 1996 and 2016, there were 480 such deaths.
We can also tell you that 2020 suppression costs totaled 3.63 billion dollars – 67.2 percent of the Forest Service’s 2020 appropriation. Not much left for doing the forest restoration work needed to break this death spiral.
What do these sad statistics have to do with COVID? Just this. If Forest Service leadership can assemble such a stunningly successful COVID defense plan in 60-some days, why does it take two, three or four years to put together a plan – any plan – for reducing the risk of wildfire in western national forests?
This question isn’t as easily answered as you might think. And, no, NEPA isn’t the problem. The newest regulations give the Forest Service great latitude. We’ve written many times about the undercurrents that have sucked us into a vortex in which much smaller wildfires have become fire storms:
- The fact that the Forest Service – once the world’s finest forest management agency – has deliberately transformed itself into the world’s largest fire department.
- The Forest Service’s failure to defend its admirable legacy of success in Congress and the public square.
- The “Oh, we can’t take sides,” speech we heard dozens of times when we asked why the agency wasn’t defending forestry’s many sciences or decisions its field personnel were making.
- The “we can’t” mentality that froze the Forest Service in place following the federal government’s still controversial 1990 decision to list the northern spotted owl as a threatened species.
- The loss of perhaps 15,000 Forest Service personal that had the experience and skill sets required to manage forests in ways that held the wildfire balance of harms in check.
- The regulatory and legal morass Congress has constructed over the last 40 years in the name of “protecting forests.” Can anyone tells us what we are protecting other than the political backsides of those who inhabit Washington D.C. fever swamps?
We are at best three months away from the beginning of the 2021 wildfire season. The question uppermost in our minds on this rainy January afternoon is this: Will the Forest Service and the next Congress continue to whistle past this graveyard or will they take the steps necessary to stuff the bad wildfire genie back in her bottle?
In our next installment, we’ll identify the necessary steps that seem most obvious to us, none more critical than the vastly increased use of smokejumpers, helitack crews, heavy lift helicopters equipped with bladders and pumps that draw water from lakes, rivers and ponds and Single Engine Air Tankers that, like helicopters, are capable of remote water pickups essential to quickly dousing most small wildfires with surgical precision.