It might be the Christmas season, but you’d never know it from the volume of angry email we’re getting concerning the West’s wildfire pandemic.
The 2020 wildfire season was the worst since 1910.
As of December 18: 10,250,447 burned, most of it in the western states and Alaska. This according to the Interagency Fire Center at Boise, Idaho. About 3.5 million acres above the rolling 10-year average. Its time to declare war on wildfire.
The Great 1910 Fire, which raged across three million acres in northern Idaho and western Montana in August and September remains the largest wildfire in U.S. history. Gale force winds drove some 1,700 small fires into a firestorm that uprooted thousands of trees and threw their flaming hulks – roots and all – ahead of the flames. 85 died. Most were poorly trained and ill-equipped men recruited from railroad yards in Spokane, Washington and Missoula, Montana.
Despite the public outcry that followed the 1910 Fire, it would be another 14 years before a heavily lobbied Congress belatedly put the U.S. Forest Service in the firefighting business alongside several privately funded wildfire cooperatives formed after the 1902 Yacolt Burn.
More Big Fires
The worst wildfire this year was the 1,032,648-acre August Fire Complex. It began as 38 small fires started by lightning on August 16 and 17. Eventually, they came together in a wind-driven colossus that swept across six counties and three national forests: Mendocino, Shasta-Trinity and Six Rivers. It was not fully controlled until November 12
Three of our Evergreen Foundation board members are Forest Service retirees with extensive forestry and wildfire experience and three more hold PhDs – one in Forest and Range Ecology, one in botany and the other in wildlife biology – so we understand why the West is ablaze and what practical steps could be taken now to immediately to reduce the size, frequency and destructive power of these killing fires.
Because these godawful fires are concentrated in federally-owned national forests, Congress has been reluctant to tackle the underlying controversy which pits “leave it to nature” activists against a diverse mix of conservation groups that advocate for a blend of restoration measures including thinning trees from overgrown forests and prescribed fire. Private, state and tribal landowners have been using these tools for decades because they are safe and reliable strategies for disposing of woody debris that collects beneath trees.
Where is the Forest Service?
Why not the U.S. Forest Service in our national forests? Start with an army of lobbyists who have convinced many in Congress that “thinning” means “all the trees will be chopped down by greedy loggers.” Add in serial litigators who go to court at taxpayer expense to stop most restoration projects the Forest Service proposes. Then add the loss of forestry-related skill sets within the Forest Service and the fact that about 60 percent of the agency’s current $5.7 billion budget is spent putting out fires.
The remaining $3.4 billion is chump change compared to the enormity of the environmental crisis that has us by the throat: 90 to 100 million acres of diseased, dying and dead forest – more than half our nation’s publicly owned forest heritage. Critical wildlife habitat and forested watersheds that provide drinking water for about two-thirds of our nation. Outdoor recreation? Clean air? Clean water?
Small wonder that the frustration level in our email box has reached the boiling point. No one we know is angrier than Frank Carroll, a colleague with more than 40 years of public and private sector experience in forestry and wildfire. More recently, Frank has been working as an expert witness for a law firm that is suing the Forest Service over its unwritten “let burn” and “managed fire” policies – charges the agency has vehemently denied for years.
An Unsustainable Approach
There are many moving parts to this story, but Frank’s anger is fueled by what appears to be Forest Service misuse of its authority. Lives, homes and thousands of acres of privately owned forest have been lost in wildfires that started on federal forestland and spread to adjacent private lands. The agency has long claimed immunity from tort claims. More galling, when fires start on private lands and spread to adjacent federal land, the government routinely sends the landowner the bill for damages.
Not so when fire bosses purposefully “burn out” privately owned forests in hopes of slowing a wildfire burning on adjacent federal land. A life’s work goes up in flames in minutes but the federal government isn’t required to compensate aggrieved landowners. There are no words to describe this moral failing.
Burn outs help because private landowners work diligently to keep their forests free of excess woody debris. With less fuel to burn, fires slow considerably when they reach healthy and well-spaced stands of trees. These are the hallmarks of sustainably managed forests.
The Forest Service is decades behind in its’ cleanup work, which is why some fire ecologists say the only solution now is to let wildfire do the work Congress and the Forest Service won’t or can’t do. The point here being that there is nothing sustainable about the agency’s increasing reliance on wildfire.
To Be Continued, Part 1 of 3