Let’s go back to fire policy that works

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I remember a day during my teenage years (mid-1990s) when my father and I were returning home after completing a morning hunt. While navigating the forest roads, he suddenly stopped, started hiking up the hill towards a stand of timber and began inspecting the trunks.

Moments later he identified what he was looking for — numerous bore holes from the Douglas fir beetle. My father had spent over 30 years as a timber sale specialist for the U.S. Forest Service. As we proceeded home, he explained how in the past the Forest Service would quickly and aggressively log out the affected area in order to contain the beetle infestation. Although he was intent on reporting the find, he explained how the Forest Service no longer aggressively preempted a beetle infestation in such a manner.

A few years later, in the early 2000s, beetle infestation grew all across Montana turning our green forests to red and then gray. Now we deal with massive forest fires as this dead timber fuels the storm. What are a couple of differences from the “old days” to now leading to these huge fires?

First, the lack of timber harvest is a key factor. For many years, the Forest Service, constantly under the threat of lawsuits by environmental groups, has negated harvesting millions of board feet of timber. Of course, logging creates areas of open space that dampen fires, and the reduction of beetle-killed timber would certainly help, but these aren’t the only benefits of logging for fire reduction.

In the past, construction and maintenance of our forest road system was funded significantly by timber sales. In fact, the timber sale purchaser was contractually responsible for maintenance of the road. As the agency managed timber, our roads were in good shape. Later this funding mechanism changed and the maintenance of our roads was no longer tied to timber. Road maintenance became a drain on the system, which resulted in the Forest Service closing off many roads. This of course lessens public access into our forests, but also hampers fire suppression as crews have less access into critical areas.

Second, is the “let burn policy.” Over the years, and in my personal experience, I have witnessed fires that could have and should have been put out while they were small, only to watch them explode weeks later, burdening the taxpayers and resources significantly. The “let burn policy” states that wildfire is a natural and integral part of our ecosystem. I think we all agree that certain fires burning in the goat rocks of wilderness areas would be all right to “let burn.” However, over the years this let-burn policy has been overly implemented, far beyond what the policy was intended to accomplish. It is true that wildfires have been suppressed through firefighting efforts over the decades, but we don’t live in a society where we can just let wildfires burn as they did back in colonial times.

For instance, whether we believe our populace should or shouldn’t construct homes in the wildland/urban interface is irrelevant. This trend is going to rise. Just as any factory, coal plant, or vehicle emission is a concern for air quality, so too is the air quality affected by wildfires. These fires release enormous amounts of carbon and other chemicals into the atmosphere, adversely affecting the health of respiratory compromised individuals.

Alongside active timber management, if we really want to avoid numerous large fires, and protect property and air quality, the new culture of our agencies needs to be one of greater emphasis on aggressive initial attack. Initial attack is the first action in suppression efforts and generally the fires are a few acres or less in size. The district wildland firefighters that I know personally do a great job with a strong emphasis towards initial attack, but on a regional and national basis the policy mindset needs to shift from “let burn” to stopping what fires we can while small and understanding some will inevitably still get away. The fires that happen to get away will accomplish the ecological benefits of wildfires while a reduction in the total number of fires will help our property, health and population as a whole.

Hinkle, a Belgrade Republican, represents Senate District 32. He is vice-chair of the Fish and Wildlife Committee and serves on the Natural Resources and Judiciary committees.

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