Only you…

Fire in the Lake San Antonio area of Monterey County, California, August, 2009. Photo by Vern Fisher.

The following article was contributed by Frank Carroll.

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Only You…

For the United States Forest Service and the other major federal, state and local wildland fire agencies, the music is playing the band.  It worked OK for the Grateful Dead.  It’s a different story when it comes to developing and conducting wildland fire policy.

It may surprise no one to discover that wildland fires are bigger, more costly, more damaging, and more out of control than in any decade before the present, all the way back to 1910.  There was so much large fire on the ground in the 2015 fire season we ran out of superlatives to describe how big and bad they were.  In many cases the fires burned together forming “charismatic megafires” of untold destruction, sometimes because we had no choice.

Author Stephen Pyne, in an often brutally honest book about where we’ve been and where we’re headed with fire management in America, observes that fire is managing us; we’re not managing fire (Between Two Fires 2015).

What began in the late 1960s as a scarcely heard warning siren that wildfire should be left to its own devices on certain wild lands (prescribed natural fire or “let burn” fires pioneered by the National Park Service) became, by 2000, a five alarm screaming wail heard round the world.  Our best laid plans have come to naught.  We are caught in a blizzard of falling ash, awash in a river of flying embers, and blinded by the smoke.  It is clear that no human power will stop the rising tide of flames in wildlands and Red Zone suburbs where 10 percent of our homes are, no matter what the cost.

How we got here is a tale worth reading.  Where we’re headed is into the fog of war, but not without guideposts and markers.  Based on the very sound idea that fire should play a natural role in natural resource management, agencies and scientists spent the past 50 years trying to work out how to get it done.  And they had help.  The Nature Conservancy can field its own firefighters and burn its own ground.  Environmentalists looked for ways to burn without having to pay for the work of preparing and herding fires, and without the expertise to help.  Their grand experiment in the theology/ecology of hope over the last 50 years accelerated the fuels problem. The fuels situation is also exacerbated in places where logging results in activity fuels with resulting backlogs needing treatment and feeding wildfires.

Pyne’s conclusion that we are now left to do our best to fight the fires in front of us is not so much disappointing as it is a steely-eyed, realistic assessment of a century of fire policy gone awry.  We are not the victims of evil intent carried out by sinister agents of government; far from it.  Our firefighters are the best in the world.  Rather we are victims of our own cultural arrogance.  Our ancestors knew fire had a place on the land.  There was a culture of burning to keep the wild lands free of brush and filled with wildlife.  After the disastrous Big Blowup of 1910, we forgot what we knew, put our heads down, and went after fire like opponents in a cage fight.  And, for a while, we won.

The National Science Advisory Team released a report on the way forward in 2012.  First is to restore and maintain fire-worthy landscapes.  Second is to fire-harden communities with zoning ordinances and Fire-wise principles.  Third is to fight fire better, smarter, and cheaper.

Sadly, advisory committees and their advice are not always heeded, nor, in this case, can they be.

The Chief of the Forest Service probably wishes he had the support Dwight Eisenhower’s once enjoyed.  Faced with an impossibly difficult task but with the backing of the entire free world, Eisenhower planned and led the invasion of Europe with no guarantee of success.  Things are not so easy for the Chief.

After more than 50 years of debate, dialog, and dissent, the Forest Service is no longer the strongest wildland fire force in America (state and local forces outnumber the FS), although the Agency is still the heavy hitter in the Black Hills.  Instead the Forest Service is a major player in a “National Cohesive Wildland Fire Management Strategy” to guide us through what is an increasingly overwhelming task; to somehow learn to live with wildfire.

At the core of the strategy is a mission “To safely and effectively extinguish fire when needed; use fire where allowable; manage our natural resources; and as a nation, to live with fire.”  Each of these elements are at cross purposes, and each command a vigorous and relentless constituency bent on making sure their piece of the fire pie is funded.  Each element requires firefighters at a moment in history when firefighters are in short supply.

In 2006 the Brookings Institute asked “Where have all the firefighters gone?” in a report on dwindling fire forces across the government and in volunteer organizations.  It’s a good question.  The Forest Service fire and fuels budget is $2.519 billion dollars this year, more than half the entire Agency budget.  Over 24 percent of that budget goes to the Forest Service Washington Office (Pyne 2015).  Forest Service firefighter numbers are falling, now below 5,000 full time personnel (not including seasonal and part time employees).  While 40 percent of the Agency’s permanent work force is qualified to fight fire, only nine percent choose to do so.  There is no longer a positive requirement for forest officers to fight fire, and there are clear incentives not to do so.

At the local level, volunteer fire departments like the Custer City, SD VFD (Custer’s Last Stand) is down to 27 firefighters from a high in the low 40s a decade ago.  The average age at the nearby Argyle VFD is over 60.  The VFD at nearby Spearfish, SD voted to stand down January 1.  This conundrum is being repeated across the Country and in places like Australia where Canberra once had 70,000 volunteers, now less than 500.  Unless a solution can be found to fill the ranks, fire protection for your home in the Red Zone, the wildland urban interface, is increasingly problematic across the West.  The picture for managing wildland fire is equally grim.

We are fighting fires differently now than 20 years ago.  We are not to “compromise firefighter safety” in the wake of the BLM disaster at South Canyon where 14 firefighters died in 1994.  That means we need to use fire more often, letting it burn where we can, fighting it where we must.

Said another way we are working to restore and maintain fire-worthy landscapes, create fire-adapted communities, and suppress wildfires that threaten people.  Our approach is not working.  Fires are bigger, more costly, and more destructive than ever.  We are losing more firefighters annually (NIFC 2015) and our change in tactics and strategy is resulting in the unprecedented sacrifice of natural resources.  Places like Bandelier National Monument in New Mexico where hot fires burned 40 years ago and 20 years ago are burning again, often at our own hands, in massive “big box” burn outs and back fires, resulting in scoured landscapes devoid of natural cover and subject to massive flooding and erosion.  See Kari Greer’s photography documenting our modern firefighting world at KariPhotos.com.

We are not helpless but we are no longer in charge.  Fire rules the day, like mythical dragons of old.  In the Black Hills we face the same problems fire officers like Type 1 incident commander Todd Pechota of Custer faced at Okanogan this summer; unmitigated fuels, dense stands of small trees, and miles of dream homes built in the Red Zone where wildfires don’t recognize property lines and escaped fires far outstrip the available firefighting resources.  Adding emphasis to this point Pechota said the outcome of his fire fight in Washington State would not have changed if he had five times as many firefighters.  Pechota and his peers fight the fires in front of them to the best of their ability.

There’s no use blaming Congress, and certainly no expectation of salvation from fire agencies already long past the breaking point.  There may be some help in the counsel to fight fires smarter, more safely, and more efficiently.  But we’ve forgotten how, and, besides, we don’t want to do the heavy lifting to live with fire.  Just ask your local county commissioners.

Jim Lintz is the Custer County, SD commissioner tasked to help try to make sense of the fire organization in Southwestern South Dakota.  He has a lot of experience.  What he doesn’t have is the political backing to impose the equivalent of fire-driven martial law in a region that frowns on government interference.  His dad tried it 40 years ago.  The public stormed the court house.

But our government, and it is OUR government, must interfere.  It will interfere one day soon.  The fuels situation in the Black Hills has passed the red line as it has in so many places.  There are some things we can do individually but there are things we have to do in common.  Living with fire in the Red Zone is no longer a choice.  We’re past managing our way to safety.

We must harden our homes and yards, and steel our communities to withstand the most brutal fires.  Hardening happens at the city and county level.  We need zoning restrictions and firm ordinances at all levels of government designed to make our homes fire-worthy, make our communities strong against fire storms, and keep our people safe with escape plans that won’t leave them abandoned in their cars to die on a lonely road far from help.  When hundreds of our homes are on fire and people are overrun in their cars, fine questions of individual freedom and Constitutional guarantees will matter little, especially to the men and women holding the line.

We must pay for fire protection if we insist on building in the Red Zone.  A new Southern Hills Water System is a guarantee that things will get worse as more and more people move into the wild lands expecting fire services that don’t exist.  Developers must pay up front for firefighting capacity as a cost of doing business (as companies like Red Canyon have done), just as homeowners must accept a fire protection tax for the privilege of building where they should not.

The Age of VFDs is coming to an end, and it’s not just firefighters.  Ask any service club.  The Age of Ignition is in full swing and will not stop.  It’s time for us to get real about wildfire.  Smokey Bear was right.  Only you, and only our representatives in local government, can enhance our ability to survive the fires next time.

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Frank Carroll, formerly the Public Information Officer for the Black Hills National Forest, is now co-owner of Professional Forest Management LLC and writes in syndication for Writers on the Range and weekly for the Rapid City Journal.

3 thoughts on “Only you…”

  1. My son was killed in the Iron 44 tragedy in 2008 in Northern California. He worked for a contractor who was contracted by the USFS. Many times these firefighters are like conscripts to the USFS. That was the way it was with the Iron 44 tragedy. They are used up – literally burned up and spit out. The families of USFS firefighters they work along side of and under the command of receive a hefty benefit upon death as a public safety officer. The private contractor firefighter receives nothing. Rather than deferring to the contractor to carry life insurance on all the firefighters it would make more sense to treat all fallen firefighters under the direction of the USFS as public safety officers as described in the PSOB law. Treat firefighters fairly and you may get more manpower. I know three previous wildland firefighters who wanted to return to the firelines this year under a private contractor. Their wives plead with them not to so they did not. Deaths do not happen that often BUT when they do PSOB benefits make a huge difference in the emotional and physical well-being of the surviving families.
    I know there are a lot of things to consider. You become very passionate about this when you are a victim. No one believes they are going to die. But it happens. I believe the families of those fallen firefighters need to be treated equally. While that costs money that is the place to start.
    Money and lives are spent on protecting land where people should not be living – thus the fire could burn. Instead millions of dollars are spent on protecting these homes at no expense to the homeowners (unless they loose their homes). Firefighters lose their lives defending these homes and their family loses everything – many times literally. Justice for the fallen firefighters family in such cases should equal the justice for the USFS fallen firefighter.
    I know the government saves money by hiring private contractors to protect the public. It makes business sense. But upon the death of a private contractor it is their family that loses big time and feels used and abused..
    Maybe that is why there are not more people wanting to become firefighters. Money does not make the loss of a life okay by any means but it does make it easier for the surviving family to deal with their massive heartache that no amount of money will take away.
    Maybe starting at the heart of the problem – the firefighter and working outward would be a solution.
    I am working with Oregon Senators to help facilitate a change in this area for Fallen firefighters. If you buy in to what I have just said e-mail or call your state representatives and ask them for their support. The more congressional support the greater the possibility for change. If we all stand up peacefully but boldly change may begin.

  2. Maybe Pyne ought to be replacing Harbour?

    Common sense needs to to prevail for that 24 % of DC expenditures

    Retirements at both VFD and FS ? Somebody forgot to impress the next generation of low wages and mandatory Age 57 retirement and the lack of putting FIRE into every employees PD to include tracking fire retire money pro rating for that time spent on fire even if not classified as FFTR….throw em a bone

    Hard to feel sorry …enjoyed my time with DOI…saw the future at 33 and 12.oo an hour 1995 wages does not translate a future ..unless one thinks that is the route

    Pyne most likely saw the writing on the wall early……….

    Too bad someone does not throw him a little invite to run the the USFS show…

    We already know that answer…..

  3. Our son also lost his life along with eight others in the IRON44 incident. The hours grueling, the work hard in the extreme, and the pay not very good. The contractor is a very decent business man, cares deeply for his employees. But I am sure his contract does not supply enough reserve funds to cover what his wild Land fire fighters need for their families in the event of catastrophe. In the event of death or complete disabilities due to fighting the fire, there are no funds available to keep the families stable from such a loss. Unlike government agency s that are protected by Union and government tax payer moneys, these families go without and have to figure it out for themselves for the large part. The crew of IRON44 was like most other work forces in most ways. The crew consisted of men with families, students, engaged singles, and those supporting older parents. This was a job, one that helped life expenses for them selves and dependents. Nina is so correct, these people put their lives on the line for all of us. The protect our environment, our properties both commercial and homes. Most important they also protect the lives of those who are in harms way from these disasters. With all the money that our government throws at foreign governments in the billions, is it too much to ask for them to help keep safe and secure those who work to protect us and may die while trying. Bottom line is provide funding to those few families that will be in dire need at the loss of a loved one. At the least provide for them a substantial insurance plan covering death or short to long term disabilities with automatic c overages while they are employed.. The contractor should not be required to pay the entire policy cost. It should be at least shared by State and Federal Government funding as a part of their risk cost that may include death or debilitating injury.

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