What’s really preventing fire prevention

Firefighter with drip torch at Wind Cave National Park, South Dakota.

I recently busted the myth that environmental organizations are to blame for the fact that the Forest Service doesn’t accomplish more work that prevents fires. Law suits by such groups do not cause backlogs on these projects, a report from the GAO made clear.

That lawsuit stuff was a bunch of spin. But talk to most fire ecologists and fire managers and they will tell you there are serious problems with wildfires. They’ll also say that we do lack sufficient fuel treatment to protect communities and forests.

So what is holding up fuel treatment work?

The bureaucratic obstacle most frequently cited by natural resource managers is conflicts with smoke. Smoke management and fire management are managed by different agencies. They sometimes work at cross purposes, benefitting neither clean air nor fire prevention. These two activities are necessary: The agencies should get together and figure out how to balance the two.

Many of the “foot soldiers” of fire management are seasonal federal employees. Under rules that govern their services, they are limited to 180 days of work. So a firefighter hired May 15 has to be laid off September 15th, just when conditions are getting right for controlled burning and other fire prevention work. Change this rule by just 40 days and you get a major increase in the ability to do fuel treatment work.

Lack of skilled agency people is another problem. Resource planners are in especially short supply, because the pay has not kept pace with the complexity of the work. Low morale also hurts Forest Service staffing – and the agency is one of the main fire management forces we have.

There are other reasons prevention projects get backed up, but the point is there are plenty of challenges to doing good fire management. We need to address them with facts and data and give up the myths about environmental obstructionists.

photo: Firefighter with drip torch at Wind Cave National Park, South Dakota.