Wednesday, September 26, 2007

Forest fire blame game serves no one

John McCarthy is the Idaho forest campaign manager for The Wilderness Society. He is based in Boise.


No one likes smoke. From stinky cigars to forest fires, all blazes produce offensive and dangerous smoke.

Beyond the misery when "smoke gets in your eyes" it's hard to find one other thing to agree with Sandra Mitchell, of the Idaho Snowmobile Association, in her attack on our brave firefighters ("Burn, baby, burn," Sept. 14, Idaho Mountain Express) and, given extreme conditions, their successful Idaho fire season of 2007.

I have worked in the woods and know how tough it is to lug an axe across rugged Idaho terrain. My three measures of firefighter success this year are: 1) no loss of life for anyone and few injuries to firefighters; 2) relatively few structures in remote areas were lost statewide; and 3) today's fire managers didn't squander scarce resources throwing money at remote fires that did more good than harm.

Instead of recognizing the good and taking a balanced look, Sandra Mitchell harped on old, outdated and false blames for natural events.

She sounds like a broken record. All she can do is blame, blame, blame. We got a drought? Blame the enviros. We got lightning? Blame the Forest Service. Hottest July since 1870? Blame Congress. Snow pack 70 percent of normal and gone by May? Blame the courts.

Idahoans want solutions, not the same-old-same-old rhetoric we are getting from special interests like Sandra Mitchell. Overheated rhetoric only delays solutions. For example, her comparing today's fire managers to General Sherman's "scorched earth" march of the Civil War is not only absurd, it's offensive.

I laced up my boots and spent many days this year on the fire line and examining post-fire recovery. To a person, the fire managers I met are working hard for both our communities and our forests, literally risking their safety to keep Idaho safe. I've seen millions of dollars spent and many lives put at risk to protect what some might consider a remote outpost at the edge of civilization or remote vacation cabins, because it's the will of the American people. At least it is, so far.

Our historic fire-fighting efforts—effectively extinguishing 98 percent of all fire starts —plays a role in current conditions. So does drought and climate. Successful fire suppression during the previous cooler and wetter century did alter fuel loads with increased brush, tree density and dead material. Changes brought by logging, road building and more homes in the woods also complicate current conditions.

I've seen fire managers adapt and adjust to these changes. Many of the big fires this year were managed to direct flanks of these fires out of harm's way for people, although on some days the only option was to get out of the way.

Idaho fire managers are national leaders in "Wildland Fire Use," the practice of allowing some remote lightning-ignited fires to burn themselves out, away from people and property. This saves money, puts fewer firefighters in danger and focuses scarce dollars, machines and manpower on fighting the most dangerous, destructive fires.

Fires doing what they've done for eons are good for the environment. The process creates habitat for wildlife, regenerates plants and trees, clears out brush, and provides ecosystem building blocks such as moisture and sunshine by opening the forest canopy and returning nutrients to the soil.

We are all human. We are all learning as we go and sometimes make mistakes. But when you look at the immense challenges our firefighters face, one has to admire the remarkable job they do.

This summer, no one died on Idaho fire lines. In future years, we may not be so fortunate. This year, all the people who kept our communities safe in a very difficult fire season earned my thanks and appreciation.

The big question remains, what can we all do in future years to help find solutions for community and forest benefit? I'm pleased to see all kinds of Idahoans work toward answers and look forward to joining them in seeking solutions.

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