Sunday, November 16, 2008

Fight fire with fire in west to help safety & forests

Toxic fire retardant dropped on Quinlan Mountains, Pima County AZ, in 2007.

TUCSON -- While deer hunting this week in the Baboquivari Mountains southwest of the city, I could barely walk through the thorny, overgrown vegetation on state, US Bureau of Land Management (BLM) and US Fish and Wildlife Service refuge lands there. I'm sure the going is also very rough for much of the larger animals in the area. The higher country of the Baboquivaris, like much of the west, badly needs a wildfire that is allowed to burn and help improve habitat quality.

Western forests and woodlands evolved with fire, and our government's 100 year+ efforts to put out virtually all wildfires has been an expensive dismal failure for public safety and the health of our lands. As lands are denied the fires they need for ecosystem health, woody vegetation builds up to unnaturally high levels, and eventual fires burn much hotter, bigger and more destructive.

Let me be clear, I don't want houses to burn down in woodland areas. My point is more people must take more responsibility for their own property by clearing vegetation away from buildings to create defensible 'fire safe' spaces. There are still far too many irresponsible people not doing this, especially wealthy vacation home owners, and too much poor planning allowing urban sprawl in to fire areas, but yet many scream for fire suppression every time the inevitable wildland fire breaks out. Lives should not be lost or risked, and scarce public money wasted trying to save structures, if owners do not take personal responsibility by doing everything they can to reduce fire threats on their own property.

There have been some gains on allowing natural fires to burn. The US Forest Service, BLM and other agencies now monitor and let some fires burn, but only in the most remote areas. The first response by bureaucrats is still to try to put almost all wildfires out as soon as possible, including by dumping thousands of gallons of toxic red fire retardant on streams, wildlife habitat and communities. The decisions to do this are predictable and somewhat understandable, with ignorant residents, reporters, politicians and insurance industry executives screaming for fire suppression at the first sign of smoke.

The Forest Service especially is suffering severe budget problems due to the dominance of fire suppression efforts. The agency's budget is drained almost every year when diverted to fire fighting efforts. Some in Congress, including Rep. Raul Grijalva (D-AZ7) are trying to end this unwise binge spending.

The Arizona State Lands Department, headed by Mark Winkleman, which is responsible for over 9.3M acres of our lands, seems to still be doing little to nothing with controlled fire or letting some natural fires burn, seeming to prefer the outdated and dangerous 'full suppression' policy of trying to put out every wildfire. The stated mission of the Land Department's Forestry Division, is, 'preventing and suppressing wildland fires on 9.3 million acres of State Trust land and 13 million acres of private land.' Not one word about fire management, just prevention and suppression only, which does not work.

We must learn to live with nature and wildfire because we cannot stop it, and the economic, human and environmental costs of continuing to try to put out virtually all wildfires are much too high.

I was once a red-carded BLM wildlands firefighter, and any honest fire boss will tell you that despite all our efforts, fire fighter injuries and deaths and billions of public dollars spent, fires largely go out when nature decides with rain, less wind, higher humidity or other natural factors.

A final note, due largely to the spread of invasive weeds, urban sprawl and livestock grazing, we are seeing more fires in low desert areas of the southwest. Fire is not natural in our low hot deserts and it can wreck these fragile and scenic lands permanently. These desert fires, which are mostly started along roads by humans, should be fully suppressed and the root causes eliminated or better mitigated.

No comments: