A Sane Proposal for a Middle Path to Wilderness Fires

By Charley Fitch

It appears to me that the U.S. Forest Service took a middle path on the recent Backbone Fire. After failing to control the fire in the first few days, they decided to work on indirect firelines some distance from the actual fire. But after many days of no real movement in the actual fire, the completion of those indirect firelines and numerous local concerns about another summer of smoke choked skies, a proposal was developed that instructed the firefighters build fireline directly on the fire edge. And that is how the fire was safely contained.

In the mid-Nineties the USFS undertook a study of the Trinity Alps Wilderness to see what could be done to “allow” fire to burn in the Alps. The study concluded that there are areas in the eastern portion of the Alps where fire could be allowed to burn within certain weather parameters without becoming a major wildfire. The middle and western portions were found to be a fairly continuous green forest, which means that once a fire starts it will continue until extinguished by man or wet weather. This we have seen in three of the last ten years in the western Alps.

So the real key is the weather. Allowing a fire that starts prior to late September to burn unchecked will most always result in a long duration large fire. A midsummer fire will most always lead to a very hot, stand destroying fire before it would be extinguished naturally. A stand destroying fire is one that most fire advocates do not want to talk about. It burns off all of the live and dead woody material, the top layers of soil measured in inches, and removes all available nutrients, microbes and protective layers from the soil. The subsequent rains will continue to remove more soil and deposit it in streams that we value for clarity and purity. Lost will be several hundred years of soil formation and require several hundred years to replace what was lost. The post-fire landscape is more like a moonscape than a forest.

Here is a proposal for a middle path. No longer consider indiscriminately started natural wildfires to be good things. Instead, use the science and technology that we possess and use only fire that is “prescribed”. This means that a fire would only be ignited when the appropriate weather and fuel conditions exist to achieve the desired results.

The other condition that must exist is that fire management and firefighting must be in compliance with the National Environmental Policy Act (NEPA) and have an appropriate EA or EIS approved prior to any ignitions. The so-called environmentalists look these documents over quite extensively for any actions on National Forest lands, yet are turning blind eyes to “allowing” wildfires to burn. The law (NEPA) does not exclude the action of allowing a wildfire to burn from the requirement of documentation of effects.

All citizens could help the Forest Service prepare the appropriate documents to comply with NEPA. The NEPA process would give everyone concerned a full opportunity to present scientific assertions about the damage done by fighting a fire compared to allowing it to burn over thousands of acres, put hundreds of thousand of tons of pollutants into the atmosphere, destroy wildlife habitat, increase global warming by releasing carbon monoxide and dioxide into the air rather than keeping this carbon in a solid state in the form of woody material, destroying hundreds of years of soil formation and polluting our pristine waters that flow from our wilderness areas.

Some vocal eco-activists, whose opinions have been expressed in newspapers recently, do not live in the Klamath Mtns but rather in Eugene, OR. So it is very understandable that they are not concerned with the health effects caused by fires and smoke on residents in the Klamath Mtns. Those vocal eco-activists are not foresters or firefighters, either.

Local residents do not wish to breathe the smoke from their forests afire or to look upon the snag patch for the next many decades. Folks from the big cities should be grateful to local residents for saving forests from devastating fires and protecting watersheds and recreation opportunities.

Those who advocate the protection of communities should remember that a community is more than a group of houses. When people are protecting their rural communities we know that what lies with in the town boundaries needs protection, but so do the forests, the air, and the waters running nearby. The Klamath Mtns are as much a part of us as we are of them.

Charley Fitch, a member of the Concerned Citizens for Responsible Fire Management [here], was District Ranger on the Big Bar Ranger District, Trinity NF, for twenty years. He is a professional forester with a degree from Colorado State University in Forest Management. He has over 35 years of forest and fire management experience.

31 Aug 2009, 3:32pm
by Jim Wells

At last. An admin-post in S.O.S. Forests by someone who might be the kind of person worth engaging. Maybe you are the kind who would look at all the information if they could, and make a reasoned judgment from the entire body of it.

Apparently, though, from what you posted here on 8-24, before having such information, you were willing to jump to conclusions about me that conveniently call my opinions into question by questioning my level of knowledge, perspective, and care, and conveniently use the fact that I opined in print as a springboard from which to repeat the same points already made by Dubrasich and associates, while failing to directly discuss mine, and then to offer the same proposal I made almost 20 years ago, as if it were a new one. The inference is that Dubrasich’s points are the only valid ones in the media dialogue betrween he and I, and that your proposal counters what I advocate for.

That is not how scientific discourse is conducted. But don’t get me wrong here—I am not complaining that this site is not a legitimate fire science forum. My compliant in that regard is that it pretends to be a legitimate fire science forum. This subject is far too important for all to be well-educated about, for those of us who truly care about it to stand by and let the public and policy makers be fed cleverly-constructed, pseudo-scientific substantiations for ideology.

You read me correctly: “cleverly-constructed, pseudo-scientific substantiations for ideology”. And if you are the kind of person worth engaging in constructive dialogue, then you are being used as a pawn in that campaign. Perhaps it is because you, also, are an ideologue, and so you are willing to forgo fully-critical thinking and rigorous argument, in favor of cheerleading? If so, you are only being human, but I ask you to overcome emotion with professional conduct.

I will give one example. I have pointed out that the “cost-plus-loss” accounting approach leaves out any accounting of benefits from wildfire. Those benefits come in various forms, such as economic stimulation through payroll and contracted service fees for fire-response operations to environmental effects—I contend that wildfires have been around for millions of years, with multiple benefits to ecosystems. The Dubrasich response, which you have now echoed, was to completely avoid repeating my point and presenting an argument (supported or not) as to why it has no place in the economic analysis. Instead, only inference is made that if benefits were included in the calculation algorithm, they would be dwarfed by the costs and losses, and therefore unnecessary to include. HOWEVER, the economic algorithm is offered-up supposedly as the tool for informing the economic bottom-line of choices in ALL wildfire management policy decisions. If ALL categories of economic effects are not included, how could it possibly be such a universally-applicable tool? As well, it is 100% unscientific to conclude that a category of data is irrelevant BEFORE analyzing it in context with the rest of the data.

So, although you clearly could use to know more about me before weighing the efficacy of my perspectives (because what it seems you have assumed about them is grossly incorrect), until I know that you are capable of directly discoursing in a thorough, logical and professional manner, I shall refrain from enlightening you about what my experiences, knowledge, and perspectives are derived from until I hear about yours. After all, on the face of it you seem to keep the company of Mr. Dubrasich, and from the language and tone of most of what I have read of his, I am skeptical that the difference between “friendly criticism or questions” (as he invited me in print to post on this site) and mockery and/or defamation really matters to him. (Take “foofurb”, for instance. Dubrasich characterizes that term as a “euphemism”, but it is not. A euphemism is an agreeable or inoffensive expression substituted for one that may offend or suggest something unpleasant. “Foofurb” is a 4th-grade playground, “nanny-nanny” mockery substituted for a technical expression. And if you want to suggest that it is just a little playful fun, so what’s the big deal, then would you feel the same way if I were to refer to Dubrasich as “Dubrasic” ? It’s a great triple pun, don’t you think?)

I’d like to read from you your take on the intent and rationale of Dubrasich’s SOS Forests rap—-the claim of advocacy for yearly light underburning of all acres of forestland in the west in order to best help them develop into and maintain Old Growth status—a goal declared all-important. And, if you claim you concur with that advocacy, I would like to read your explanations about what, as a former District Ranger on the Big Bar Ranger District, Trinity NF for twenty years, you did all those years to preserve Old Growth, by that same means or by any others. Did every timber sale you authorized work in that direction? Or maybe you will write how you are so very sorry for your former ignorance in facilitating the clear-cutting of old growth and trying to put out all fires and how and when you saw the light. Or maybe you will tell me a story that will really surprises me.

And what do you think about Dubrasich continuing to cite to Bonnicksen, after Bonnicksen was so thoroughly and publicly discredited by a university board last year for repetitively false-claiming academic credentials from that university?

The list goes on.

If you can come across as an honest man, with a believable story that explains why and that you truly seek wildfire management policies well-grounded in science and common sense, comprehensively written, and funding-endowed to assure that no critical pieces of a sensible approach get neglected, then we can spearhead an effective education and action campaign. With that subject raised, I will do just a bit of what I wrote I would not yet do—give a little info on me in an example of what makes me hesitate to give the benefit of the doubt to anyone allied with Dubrasich. I have always criticized other “enviros” as surely as I have criticized “timber beasts” or “career-protecting bureaucrats” whenever they have justified ideology with selective arguments. Are you failing to criticize your own peers for the same things you criticize “enviros” for? I did notice that you invited the inclusion of the negative environmental impacts of fire suppression into the “cost-plus-loss” equation. That is the main reason I decided to take a chance and respond to you. Now I want to see if that was an indication of your desire to see ALL consequences economically accounted for in a true balance sheet, or if it was just a ploy to appear to advocate for objectivity.

You and Dubrasich rightfully criticize (although Dubrasich’s choices of words and tones are completely inappropropriate) the USFS for responding to wildfires as tools to obtain resource objectives without NEPA-compliant plans in place to guide the use of that tool—but where is the campaign for all Forest Plans to have prescribed natural fire policies, guidelines, and Plans, as required by their own regulations since the 1970s? I was part of a very small group of “enviros” that was demanding that in the early 1990s. Not to “Let It Burn”—to WATCH and help it burn if and when and only if and when conditions are within very specific and carefully-chosen parameters, informed by the best research, constantly fine-tuned in response to observed, ecosystem-specific fire behaviors, and to immediately suppress it if and when it threatened to go out of prescription. Where were you, and where was Dubrasich? And why did Dubrasich completely unjustifiably defame the tireless champion of NEPA-compliant prescribed natural fire prescriptions, instead of throwing voice and funding behind him?

I’ll venture a guess-because Dubrasich, despite all rhetoric that might suggest elsewise, is an ideologue who believes that there is no such thing as any benefits from any wildfire. Therefore, anyone who opines that there ARE benefits is a heretic in his eyes, deserving of being burned at the stake. Do you agree? Or do you really want to be part of a discourse about wildfire management policy based on all the facts, and part of a group advocacy for a thorough revamping of federal land management agencies’ Plans to intelligently integrate wildfire issues?

And what are you going to say about private timberland management? That they already do a better job of letting low-intensity fires burn on their lands to create and maintain Old Growth stands and therefore we should adopt their policies of ultra-aggressive fire suppression? Are private forestlands not as important as public forestlands in the healthy forests debate?

31 Aug 2009, 4:09pm
by rich

OK, lets assume the folks who disagree with you are ecofreaks, urbanites and nonforesters.

I live near the Oregon border, close enough to the Klamath’s to get pretty thoroughly smoked last summer. I worked for the FS for 32 years. I worked 20 years in fire management, BD crews, hotshot crews, Division Supervisor, etc. Based on my experience, your assertions about fire are dead wrong.



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