Forest Service retirees speak out about fire and forest management

Three well known and respected retirees from the U.S. Forest Service have written articles about the current state of forest and fire management and provide advice about where we should go from here. Below are some excerpts that were published by what appears to be a forward-thinking organization, FireSafe Montana.

The first is from Jerry Williams, Former National Director of Fire and Aviation for the US Forest Service, titled “Situational Assessment at the Policy Level: Adapting to a New Reality”:

…In an era where federal budget deficit reduction efforts need to occur, should we go “all-in” with suppression capacity, or should greater priority be given to prevention and hazard mitigation? What are the long-term risks and consequences of alternative wildfire protection strategies?

As much of the West continues to move into a hotter, drier climate cycle, the need intensifies to more urgently adapt regulations, policies, plans, and practices to a changed circumstance and a new reality. Perhaps it is time to pause and — much like we ask of our firefighters – re-assess the situation before we go much further. At this point, the consequences of doing what we have always done may be pushing a potentially bad position that is not well accounted.

Bob Mutch, who retired from a 38-year career in wildland fire research and management with the U.S. Forest Service, wrote “Just Leave the Line”, an article about the risks facing firefighters and at what point should they place more emphasis on protecting themselves than saving structures or vegetation.

…At the 2005 Safety Summit in Missoula, Montana, the goal of Zero Defects was proposed—in other words, no injuries or fatalities during the conduct of our fire business. Such an undertaking leads us away from the un-mindful (mindless?) position that firefighting is dangerous, people will make mistakes, and bad things will sometimes happen. Under that premise we can simply say “I told you so!” when the bad event occurs. With a commitment to zero defects, when an injury or worse happens we are immediately placed on notice that an intolerable action has occurred that must be corrected. Or better yet we will become so much more mindful because we are anticipating the worst that we prevent the unwanted outcome from happening in the first place.

Stephen F. Arno, a retired research forester with the Rocky Mountain Research Station considered the increasing number of acres burned in recent decades and has some advice about stemming the tide, in “Living with Fire-dependent Forests”:

…Westerners will continue to be plagued by increasing peril and costs of wildfires until we adopt a saner attitude about the role of fire in our forests. For some inspiration we could look to the Southeastern U.S., where states have “right-to-burn” laws (limiting liability to reasonable levels) and provide extension forestry help to foster responsible prescribed burning by private landowners. We could do likewise by accepting that fire will continue to be a fact of life in our forests, but that we can influence the way fire affects our forest by managing its structure and its fuel using mechanical treatments, fuel removal, pile burning, and prescribed fire. Even in the most severe conflagrations of recent years, forest properties and homesites that were thinned and made fire-resistant experienced far less damage. It is high time to heed the advice that California timberman George Hoxie published in 1910: We had best adopt fire as our servant; otherwise it will be our master.

I like Mr. Arno’s last line: “We had best adopt fire as our servant; otherwise it will be our master.” 

IAWF logo

That is what I think of when I see the logo of the International Association of Wildland Fire, which was actually inspired by the myth of Prometheus stealing fire from Zeus and giving it to humanity.