Why Does the Federal Government Want Us To Return to Century-Old Firefighting?

What's to come?
Aug. 30 2012 7:30 AM

The Fire Next Time

While we’re facing more wildfires than ever, the federal government wants us to return to outdated firefighting methods.

A tanker airplane drops fire retardant on a wildfire.
A tanker airplane drops fire retardant on a wildfire on Sept. 1, 2011 in Graford, Texas

Photograph by Tom Pennington/Getty Images.

Earlier this summer, the deputy chief of state and private forestry, James E. Hubbard, sent out a memo laying guidelines for the remainder of wildfire season. His message: Effective immediately, regional, area, and station directors should adopt the default position of “full containment” when approaching all wildfires.

Full containment means going all-out to put a blaze out as soon as possible—an approach that to most of us would seem pretty sensible. But it actually goes against decades of research that suggest a more balanced approach: allowing some wildfires to take their natural course, playing a cleansing role in the forest ecosystems, and clearing out some forms of underbrush and other material (called fuel)—all of which helps reduce the size of wildfires in the future.

Hubbard’s order covered only this season and, he says, does not represent a permanent policy shift. But while many foresters understand the reasoning behind the deputy chief’s request for a change—more on that in a minute—it has some of them worried. Why? Because even if they return to standard procedure next year, the immediate fix puts the long-term solution for managing the country’s forests—and fires—in serious jeopardy and could actually make things much worse.

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With a record-breaking season of heat and drought has come an unprecedented season of wildfires. Recently, a Washington state blaze burned more than 20,000 acres of national forest and destroyed 60 homes, forcing 400 families to evacuate and prompting the governor to declare a state of emergency. On the national scale, that’s just a tiny blip. According to the Interagency Fire Center, 31 large fires are currently active, while 7 million acres have already burned across the country this season—well above the 10-year average and charring the previous record set in 2006.

And that means our resources for fighting them—the aviation fleets, the smoke jumpers, and the budgets that pay for it all—are stretched thin. You can measure the cost in dead 20-year-old firefighters in Idaho, or tens of millions of dollars in charred homes and getting boots on the ground. Or you can look at giant blob smoke map Julia Whitty has posted over at Mother Jones. But that high price is why Hubbard wants local forest services to reverse battle tactics and pursue aggressive suppression, even in the remote wilderness. The agency’s $984-million budget for this year has already been busted, with cost projections of $1.4 billion.

Predictive Services—the office that uses a huge amount of recorded data to make short- and long-term predictions about wildfires—may have taken stock of the situation and encouraged Hubbard’s order to fight all fires aggressively. But as with so many short-term solutions in the face of eminent threat, the long view is being set aside, and that’s the scary part.

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