Fed Fire Policy Is Arson

Federal fire policy leaves private timber in ruins

by Dennis Possehn, Speak Your Piece, Redding.com, March 15, 2009 [here]

Thousands of acres of private timberland are adjacent to and within National Forest boundaries, where fire protection responsibility comes under the U.S. Forest Service. It is the Forest Service’s legal duty to protect these private parcels just as Cal Fire protects lands outside of National Forest influence. It is apparent from last summer’s fires that fire protection no longer exists for thousands of acres of private timberland, as many private parcels were purposely set fire by the Forest Service and burned.

In fact, more acreage was burned, and more smoke and carbon were put into the air by the U.S. Forest Service than by natural wildfire. Most of the private timberland burned is not being reforested as owners are fearful of similar events happening in the future.

Following the death of several firefighters in Idaho a few years ago, the Forest Service adopted a new “safety policy” using indirect methods to fight fire. This policy change has resulted in the huge devastating fires and smoke plumes the western states are experiencing. The federal policy of indirect firefighting leads to larger fires that require many more bodies, equipment and aircraft be put in harm’s way. This action will always increase the number of accidents, not decrease them. The U.S. Forest Service must come to the realization that its policies are destructive and not meeting the agency’s safety goals.

The Forest Service, due to budget cuts has been in a downsizing and centralizing mode that takes away fire authority from the local ranger districts and gives it to the supervisor’s office. Initial attack on wildfires is crucial. Local rangers know who contractors are and where the nearest equipment exists; however, they are helpless to act aggressively. All contracting for fire equipment comes out of the supervisor’s office in Redding, thus delaying maximum attack strength for hours or days.

Fire incident commanders, who work for the forest supervisor, no longer come from local professionals who know the lay of the land and vegetation, but from other areas and states that work a two-week shift and then are gone. Incident commanders from other states have never fought fire in our terrain and have no vested interest in our communities. Many of them do not realize the value of private timber they are burning as the Forest Service generally looks at timber as habitat, not a source of income.

There are many commendable incident commanders doing a great job, but also a few that did nothing but set new fires, many on private land, when the actual wildfires were miles away. These few “drive-by arsonists,” who come, burn and go, tarnish the otherwise good reputation of the firefighter profession. Cal Fire has to prioritize its efforts when men and equipment are in short supply, and may not always offer resources to the Forest Service, especially when the objective appears to be more toward managing a fire rather than putting it out.

It is imperative we stop this problem and not have a repeat of last year. The Forest Service must come to grips that what it is doing is not working, and that “policy changes” are badly needed.

Environmental groups and federal judges need to allow responsible timber harvesting, with timber receipts ear-tagged for fuel reduction projects, road maintenance, and badly needed firefighting equipment. Congress must approve budgets sufficient to increase the amount of equipment, understanding that dozers serve dual purposes: fighting fire in the summer while building firebreaks in other times.

Ranger districts must regain some fire contracting authority during initial attack to maximize their ability to extinguish fires while they are still small. The Fire Incident Team in charge of firefighting must include a local fire professional and a responsible member of the public to add balance and stability to the attack. The Forest Service must change its policy and fight fire directly, as it has proven to be safe and effective in the past. The one and only goal must be to put out the fire as quickly as possible while being safe.

Last but not least, the Forest Service is obligated to investigate one or two of the incident commanders who fought fires in Northern California last summer, and prosecute those who abused their authority and contributed to a great tragedy.

Setting fires to private property when that property is not part of an emergency, or immediate threat of wildfire is not “fire management.” It is arson, and that is a crime.

Dennis Possehn is a registered professional forester in Anderson.

15 Mar 2009, 3:01pm
by John M.

Possehn is echoing the complaints voiced by many people in the Northern California area. The unhappiness I hear comes from people with decades of forest and fire management experience. Many of these people have spent their lives and careers in the forests of the North State, and “know of what they speak.”

The Forest Service has many problems to solve, but there are two that, in my opinion, are priority. First, line officers (District Rangers and Forest Supervisors) must have fire training and experience to carry out their line officer roles. They can not delegate this responsibility to people from out of town. The also must have the authority to quickly mobilize qualified local resources to assist with firefighting in the early stage of the fires. Finally, they must understand the forests are to be protected, not damaged or destroyed by fire.

The second need is to protect those people in command of fires from liability or criminal actions if there is an unfortunate accident on a fire and the fire leaders have followed the rules and operating procedures. Dennis mentions this issue, and I can tell you after talking to fire commanders around the West the fear of liability is real. The legislation creating the situation was unfortunately passed in haste after the 30 Mile Fire where four firefighters lost their lives. Wildland fire commanders deserve and must have the same protection as other emergency service leaders.

There is also a need to talk with the public about the biological and economic values that are lost in these wildfires. A quick example is the loss of fish habitat in the Big Bar area of the Trinity. Almost the entire district has been burned in the last decade and the area burned is critical Salmon habitat.

Dennis is right, something has to change.



web site

leave a comment

  • Colloquia

  • Commentary and News

  • Contact

  • Follow me on Twitter

  • Categories

  • Archives

  • Recent Posts

  • Recent Comments

  • Meta