MISSOULA, MT – Only you can prevent forest fires from obliterating your house. This twist on the old advice of Smokey Bear* is what the U.S. Forest Service is telling homeowners nowadays. But the agency is having some trouble getting the word out.
The Forest Service’s chief of firefighting, Tom Harbour, left his D.C. office and flew to Missoula to relay that message to reporters here for the annual conference of the Society of Environmental Journalists, which wrapped up today.
Even with more than 10,000 federal firefighters ready to roll every fire season, the Forest Service simply can’t protect the throngs who have chosen to move into the woods in the last few decades, Harbour said.
“When that fire is coming over the ridge at your house, it’s too late,” Harbour said. “From an ecological perspective and a social perspective, we only face two choices: We’re either going to act as a society, or we are going to get acted upon. … The choices we have made as a society have put us in this position.”
Those choices include a century of suppressing fire in the woods, a policy kicked off by the more than 1,700 wind-fueled blazes that coalesced from eastern Washington to western Montana on Aug. 20-21, 1910.
Next came the individual decisions by so many Americans to move into the woods over the last four decades. Many others moved to suburbs set amid fireprone grasslands or chaparral such as the acreage scorched annually by the Santa Ana winds in southern California.
“It may be the most significant internal migration we’ve ever had,” Harbour said.
Those folks living in the woods and fields are the ones Harbour and other fire scientists want to take action.
What homeowners need to do is pretty simple: remove anything that can burn for 30 feet around their homes. That means anything: fences, trees, bushes, wood piles. Anything. Over the next 70 feet from that, you need to thin and prune trees and otherwise make the landscape around your home less likely to convey fire to your home. Home construction also is a factor; one of the most important steps is to switch out a roof made of flammable material for something fire-resistant such as metal. Details are available at firewise.org.
Greybeard fire researchers say the suppression of flames in lands controlled by the U.S. Forest Service, Bureau of Land Management and other agencies has upset the ecological balance there in addition to posing a massive threat to people’s homes.
Now, quite apart from the ecological questions, I’ve grown fairly skeptical about the wisdom of spending $1.5 billion a year fighting these fires. My skepticism started when I first started going to backcountry fire scenes, where small tent cities spring up as if an invading army had arrived. At one of the very first fires I covered, in Okanogan County, I noted that souvenir t-shirts were for sale, and very popular among firefighters. Clearly the whole thing was a bit of a lark for many.
Then I started listening carefully to what fire managers said about various fires. And what I learned is that we really can’t do a great deal about the behavior of most fires. Many of them aren’t controlled until weather conditions change – and last I looked, we still can’t control the weather (even if we’re doing a great job of affecting the climate. But that’s another story.)
SEJ co-tour leader Roger Archibald, then a firefighter, traveled from his home in Massachusetts in 2003 to fight a fire on some of the same grounds we saw near Missoula on our tour. That fire in 2003 was a good example of what I’m talking about.
It was started by lightning one August afternoon. It burned slowly for a while but escalated in a windstorm Aug. 16 that spread it to 3,600 acres in just two hours. Roger and a whole bunch of other firefighters were scrambled from distant points. That did little good, though. It was rain in September that actually put the fire out – weeks later.
But consider the costs of just one afternoon, Roger said, when the public looking up from Missoula was seeing a particularly smoky scene. And complaining. Two helicopters were dispatched to scoop up water and dump it on the fire. This happened because of public outcry, not because there was any real chance that two choppers dropping water at the rate of 700 gallons per trip were going to do much to affect a 3,600-acre fire. (Or larger. It eventually burned some 7,000 acres.)
The helicopters ran all day, at a cost of $1,200 per hour, Roger said.
That’s just one example, but consider that the Forest Service spends half its budget on firefighting.
Retired Forest Service researcher Steve Arno, quoting an environmentalist, spoke of the “fire-industrial complex.” (With presumed apologies to President Eisenhower.)
The Forest Service for years “got pretty much an open checkbook. They built an empire based on that promised mission,” Arno said.
Author and SEJ co-tour guide Dick Manning said as much: “Firefighting is a very significant part of our economy here in Montana.”
And yet, as Arno said: “These are fire-dependent forests and when you mess around with the fire ecology, it can affect them in undesirable ways.”
One of the most problematic ways is the build-up of trees and shrubs in fire-protected forests, which would have been cleaned out by fire before Europeans arrived. (And, as University of Montana Fire Sciences Professor Ronald Wakimoto pointed out, Native Americans had lived in the West for millennia and had regularly made it a practice to burn the woods.)
So where does that leave us? With one, um, hellacious problem when these overstocked forests and grasslands get going good one fire season.
Given our relative inability to control many blazes, the Forest Service and other firefighting professionals are starting to put the most effort into protecting what they call the Wildland Urban Interface, or WUI. (Pronounced, I’m afraid, “WOO-ee,” almost as if one were on a roller coaster.)
What they’re talking about mostly is places where people live in the woods or other naturally fire-prone areas. Forest Service researcher Jack Cohen showed us example after example of suburban fires where many homes were destroyed – while pockets of vegetation survived, along with the occasional firesafe home.
“People are really the essence of the problem,” Cohen said. “That suggests to us that our behavior is part of the problem.”
The lesson of the day: Act ahead of time to keep wildfire at a distance from your house. Remove all sources of ignition. Said Cohen: “Houses that don’t ignite don’t burn. Duh! Aren’t you glad you came on this tour?”
This echoes the words of noted fire ecologist Steven Pyne when I interviewed him for a story a few years back: "This has always been a dumb problem, because we've always known how to fix it."
One final important point about a subject that came up and needs investigating, but that I’m not likely to get to anytime soon. This tip comes from Wakimoto:
The Forest Service last year very quietly changed its policies for fighting fires – but did a lousy job communicating with the public about it. The changes are outlined in a document from Feb. 13, 2009. The changes are complicated but the bottom line is that firefighters now may choose to have more than one objective in fighting a fire. In the past, it was try to put out the fire, or perhaps let it burn if it’s in a place that would be environmentally helpful. Now, though, it will be possible to have multiple objectives at any given fire. Maybe the thing to do is protect the homes on one end of the fire but let it burn on the other end, for example.
Wakimoto told me: “We changed our national fire policy. It’s just that we didn’t tell anyone. … It’s really frustrating for me.”
*(No typo – It’s Smokey Bear, not Smokey the Bear. Go figure.)