Wind shifting in right direction on fire policy

Firefighters at Trapper Ridge Fire. Photo by John McCarthy.

Though shifts in the wind aren’t always welcome when fighting wildfires, they can be very refreshing if they’re coming from the halls of government. Thanks to the hard work of the Forest Service, Department of Interior, Congress and nonprofits like ours, we’re starting to see positive change on a host of wildfire-related issues.

Agencies are making use of clear new policy guidance that gives fire managers greater options. The goal of the new policy is to maintain a focus on suppressing fires that threaten people or property while also allowing fires that don’t to perform their natural role in the landscape: revitalizing forests.

As I mentioned to reporters on a press call today this is a very important change since the federal land management agencies have been getting downsized since the first Reagan administration and they don’t have the people to fight every side of every fire. It’s like they are trying to paint a whole house with one can of paint.

Allowing fires that don’t pose risks to communities to burn not only rejuvenates forests, it saves taxpayer dollars. At a time when thinning and brush cutting run $300 to $1,500 per acre, we know of one 9,000 acre fire that did the thinning and the brush removal the natural way with fire for $149 an acre.

The policy also calls for more controlled burning, the practice of allowing teams of fire fighting experts to selectively and skillfully set and manage small fires to clear out underbrush that could fuel catastrophic fires later. This saves money and keeps air cleaner because controlled burns are set when atmospheric conditions cause most of the smoke to go straight up. Contrast that with last year’s wildfires and the frequent inversions that sent smoke into towns and cities across northern California and southwest Oregon.

Changing the ways agencies respond to wildfires, though, is just one of a series of steps we must take.

Congress is poised to do its part. The Senate should act next by passing its version of the Federal Land Assistance, Management and Enhancement (FLAME) Act. This bill would provide a stand-alone source of funding for fire suppression so that the Forest Service doesn’t have to keep taking money away from other programs and services each year to cover suppression. (The next hearing on the bill is set for July 21, 2009.)

It’s also important for Congress and communities to lend their support to the principles of the newly formed Fire Suppression Funding Solutions Coalition. The Wilderness Society, along with our friends at the National Association of State Foresters and American Forests, have organized a scroll full of organizations seeking consensus on the subject.

Scientists predict the fire season to keep getting worse in the coming years, but the good news is that we are taking greater strides toward protecting people and property while also restoring our forests.

photo: Firefighters at Trapper Ridge Fire. Photo by John McCarthy.