TBT: “President Bartlet”, under pressure, allows fire to burn in Yellowstone

For throwback Thursday, the topic is less than full suppression fires. The second half of this article first published on Wildfire Today in 2009 is about an episode of The West Wing from 2001.

Here’s what we wrote 9 years ago:

Too often we hear sentiments like:

Government can’t SOLVE problems, government IS the problem!

So it was very refreshing to read an excellent editorial in the Missoulian which supports a decision made by government officials. In this case, it was a decision not to attempt to aggressively suppress the Kootenai Creek fire in the Bitteroot National Forest in Montana.

From the Missoulian:

When a fire in Kootenai Creek blazed to life more than two months ago, Bitterroot National Forest officials warned it would likely burn through the summer.Kootenai Creek fire, Sept. 26, 2009

They explained, and news outlets including the Missoulian reported, that they would be keeping a close eye on the fire, and if it grew to threaten private property they would be ready to jump on it. They also explained that it was too dangerous – and ineffective – to send in firefighting crews or fire retardant-bombing aircraft so long as the flames clung to the side of a rough canyon.

So, while many Bitterroot Valley residents have had to live with the smoke and smolder since mid-July, they could do so knowing that the lives of firefighters were not being risked unnecessarily – and that forest managers were not throwing away massive amounts of taxpayer money to fight a fire that threatened no homes.

And once the Kootenai fire moved too close for comfort to private lands near Stevensville, they could see for themselves that firefighting crews moved quickly to box it in.

thank you firefighters
InciWeb photo.

Nevertheless, the front-row lesson in fire management has left some Bitterroot residents feeling burned. Some of these folks would have liked to see fire management officials order the fire out right away. They seem to think it should never have been allowed to burn so long, or to come so close to private property.A resident near the Kootenai Creek fire thanks firefighters

They should take care to remember that firefighters did jump on a number of small fires in the area – and extinguish them just as quickly as they sprang up. The Kootenai fire too was tackled as soon as it had reached more open terrain. It has been, and will likely continue to be, managed exactly according to plan, and the people managing this fire deserve praise for their handling of it. They are, after all, experienced experts in fire management and know best which fires to tackle and which to leave alone.

They also understand that it is not worth one firefighter’s life to save someone’s property.

Every summer serves as a reminder that we in western Montana are living in a fire-dependent ecosystem. If you choose to live in the forest, fire is a risk you run. In fact, this summer Gov. Brian Schweitzer has taken pains to let all Montanans know that those who reside in the urban-wildland interface must take steps to mitigate their risk of fire damage, and not just assume that government agencies will ride to the rescue.

Despite some wet weather earlier this summer, September is shaping up to be dry and windy enough to encourage additional fire activity. The cooler weather will help, but it alone won’t put out any fires.

Next time a fire flares up – and there always is a next time when you live in western Montana – and fire managers tell us what they are planning to do, we should all listen.

Thank you, editorial staff of the Missoulian.

It reminds me of an episode on The West Wing in 2001 called “Ways and Means“.
west wing bartlet leoPart of the plot involves a “fire use” fire in Yellowstone National Park that is not being aggressively suppressed. The Governor of Wyoming is incensed that the National Park Service is not putting out the fire and strongly argues with President Josiah Edward “Jed” Bartlet to put it out immediately. But Bartlet consults with personnel in the Department of Interior and decides that the National Park Service is right.

Here is an excerpt from the script of the show. “Leo McGarry” is President Bartlet’s Chief of Staff. He walks into an office and sees the President:

Good evening.

The governor of Wyoming was an inch and a half away from calling me a pyromaniac tonight.

LEO (sarcastically)
That’s surprising ’cause we really had respect from him before.

I’m saying somewhere out there is a registered voter who’s thinking, ‘You know, I thought I really liked this Bartlet fellow, but now that I see he’s in favor of fire…’

He thinks it’s gonna adversely affect tourism.

It’s the end of the season and the fire isn’t anywhere near tourists. Letting this fire burn is good for the environment. You know how I know?


Because smart people told me.

I miss The West Wing.

Thanks Dick

Author: Bill Gabbert

After working full time in wildland fire for 33 years, he continues to learn, and strives to be a Student of Fire. Google+

3 thoughts on “TBT: “President Bartlet”, under pressure, allows fire to burn in Yellowstone”

  1. The just let it BURN people will be the end of us, face it, gang its a new ball game. We are burning more acreage, destroying more homes and sure as hell killing more good people. Fire is burning hotter and making more runs at night them during the day time. WHY ? well guess what the seven year drought or climate change, face it amigo its true. The Yellowstone fire was a nightmare ask anyone who was there. What do we do ? just hit them hard and fast with massive force. Keep the fires small and hope for weather conditions to change.

  2. The constant, regular smoke is killing thousands of people in the west. It’s definitely time to reconsider the “let it burn” approach. Newspapers can write all of the editorials they want, but sensible people realize there are huge health and medical costs to burn, burn, burn.

    Thanks for this publication and its obvious caring for our brave firefighters. I hope everyone will keep in mind: even though a fire may be too distant to put homes immediately at risk, the smoke travels widely, effecting the quality of life and, yes, threatening life itself.

  3. The term “let burn” was developed by the late Dr. Bruce Kilgore 50 years ago to describe high elevation fires allowed to burn in the Sequoia-Kings Canyon National Parks backcountry. Dr. Kilgore later regretted the term, since it implied a hands-off approach to a fire, which was not the case. The policy has continued to this day, and has been used in many wilderness and remote areas successfully, but on a very limited basis, and not always without problems. But the term is misused when a wildfire receives what is perceived by the public as anything less than a full-out response, when in fact such a response was impossible. For example, the 2015, 150,000 acre Rough Fire on the Sierra/Sequoia National Forests started in an area the Forest Service couldn’t attack safely, but was later chastised for “letting the fire burn.” Aggressive, overwhelming response to a wildfire may be a goal, and is often successful, but the increasing size and costs of suppression have nothing to do with a “let it burn” policy. It does have to do with increasing fuel loads, changing climate, developments in the wildland urban interface, and fire behavior no amount of suppression resources can stop, and not for any lack of trying. There is a significant difference between “letting it burn” and “getting out of the way so no one gets killed.”

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