- The Washington Times - Friday, September 1, 2000

Environmental regulations meant to protect plants, streams and fish are restricting the use of fire retardant and bulldozers to fight Western fires, according to residents and firefighters alike.
Firefighters say the use of bulldozers to draw fire lines is being severely restricted and they are forced to chop trees by hand. The use of fire retardant is prohibited near Montana streams containing Bull trout, which are listed as a "threatened" species under the Endangered Species Act.
"Once the fire starts and you have all these criteria, it just throws out every fire plan and training about how to address wild-land fires," said Cy Jamison, former director of the Bureau of Land Management.
"If you put all these caveats on what fire bosses can do and what equipment is used you just tie the hands of the professionals whose job it is to put the fire out," said Mr. Jamison, who served under President Bush.
Westerners, who are accustomed to assertive firefighting policies under previous administrations, say environmental policies of the Clinton-Gore administration are crippling efforts to extinguish fires some of which have burned for nearly two months.
"At Clear Creek, [Idaho], they stopped the whole fire line to look at sensitive plants to make sure proper riparian and stream management was followed," said one firefighter, speaking on the condition of anonymity. "The Forest Service shut the whole thing down for a day or two."
The National Interagency Fire Council reported yesterday the Clear Creek fire is burning on 200,000 acres.
Harry Croft, deputy director of fire and aviation for the Forest Service in Washington, said he is skeptical of anecdotes from the field.
"It demonstrates people don't understand what is going on. It is not firefighting at any cost, we've learned that," he said.
"Some of those things are going to be true, but the cure can't be worse than the disease, and in many cases, bulldozers cause damage that lasts for years," Mr. Croft said.
He said bulldozer lines from a California fire 30 years ago are still visible and scar the land. When analyzing how to fight fires, the strategy this year is to fight fires safely and effectively, "not making more harm than good," and "balancing the need of environmental protection and firefighting strategy."
One firefighter agreed the heavy equipment can cause damage, but said it is easier to reclaim bulldozer lines than thousands of acres of scorched forests.
Aircraft assisting in firefighting are being told to steer clear of streams no matter the fire danger, firefighters said.
"On one stream, they made them quit pumping water because they were taking too much, making the water temperature come up and hurting the trout. Now the water is completely gone, it just boils down to steam and everything is dead in there anyway," the firefighter said.
"It's absolutely ridiculous the way they are doing this," he said.
Another firefighter said the refusal to allow fire retardant near Phillipsburg, Mont., because of the threat to Bull trout has allowed that fire to grow to 42,000 acres.
Firefighting experts say it is beneficial to use fire retardant in many cases as part of an overall control plan, but could not say whether the absence of that specific tool is hurting containment efforts.
However, they agree that chopping wood by hand rather than using bulldozers is slowing firefighting efforts.
"It does impact it quite a bit," said Les Rosenkrance, former director of the National Interagency Fire Center.
"Hand lines take so long to construct, and with a bulldozer, you can go quicker, build more fire lines … and have more effective fire lines," Mr. Rosenkrance said, while acknowledging the bulldozers will cause some environmental damage.
Firefighter Charlie Parke said federal officials are also reluctant to drag the chopped wood out of the fire areas because environmentalists are accusing them of logging the burned areas. He said officials are reluctant to even use logging equipment such as bulldozers because of the criticism.
Another firefighter said that rather than dragging the trees away from fires and disturbing the ground, U.S. Marines are carrying the wood out of the immediate fire area by foot.
In what is being called the record fire season in more than 50 years, 6.4 million acres have burned to date. In Montana, 28 fires are burning on 637,000 acres. In Idaho, 26 fires are burning on 720,000 acres. Firefighters say they have seen hundreds of dead animals that failed to escape the flames, including deer, elk, bear, mountain lions, moose and beavers.
Westerners are clearly frustrated by environmental and other federal regulations they say are hampering firefighting efforts.
"Everyone is disgruntled from the top to the bottom," Mr. Jamison said.
"There is a lot of pent-up anger that goes back to the policies of the Clinton administration, which tried to manage forests like pre-European times and you can't do that. They have sat on their hands for the last eight years," Mr. Jamison said.
The Clinton administration is also embracing a policy of just letting the fires burn, saying it will clear underbrush and dead trees. However, critics say some fires could have been avoided by allowing logging companies to thin the trees.
Don Shearer, a Montana farmer, said the Forest Service deserves credit for their firefighting efforts, but that "administrative regulations are hampering the whole mess."
The 75-year-old farmer sparred with the Forest Service recently when a fire broke out on his private property and an official ordered Mr. Shearer to stop fighting the fire because he was not following safety regulations.
When the Forest Service official threatened to arrest Mr. Shearer, he said he ignored the threat and said, "Get … out of my way, I have work to do."
With the assistance of his son and local volunteer firefighters, they were able to draw a fire line and stop the fire on his property. After returning a hard hat the Forest Service official ordered him to wear, he was told he would not be arrested.
While Mr. Shearer was fighting the fire on one end on his property the fire was left unattended by federal officials on the other side and the fire escaped onto Forest Service property.
It is now the second-largest fire in the state burning 81,000 acres.

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