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 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.
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. And yet USFS 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.
At the local level, outfits like the Custer City VFD is down to 27 firefighters from a high in the low 40s a decade ago. The average age at Argyle VFD is over 60. Our new fire director, Dar Coy, is in a battle from the start. He is tasked with forging a viable fire organization with a glass half empty and leaking more each day. With the recent vote of the Spearfish VFD to stand down January 1 unless a solution can be found to fill the ranks, fire protection for your home is increasingly problematic. 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 just as many firefighters and our change in tactics and strategy is resulting in the unprecedented sacrifice of natural resources. Places 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.
We are not helpless but we are no longer in charge. Fire rules. In the Black Hills we face the same problems fire officers like Type 1 incident commander Todd Pechota of Custer faced at Okanagan 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 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 commissioner tasked to work with Coy to help try to make sense of the fire organization in the Custer/Fall River area. 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, even were he so inclined.
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. 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 like Mike Carter and the other emergency coordinators are working on right now. 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. The 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 Red Canyon has 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 harden our ability to survive the fires next time.