On July 4th, lightning struck a tree in the Humboldt-Toiyabe National Forest in Alpine County, California, igniting a small fire that smoldered for days in a quarter acre of rugged terrain. According to Sheriff Rick Stephens, California’s fire-fighting agency, CalFire, dispatched a crew to put it out. But they were told to “stand down” by the U.S. Forest Service, which proceeded to “monitor” the fire instead. That is to say; they did precisely nothing.
Twelve days later, the “Tamarack Fire” exploded out of control, consuming nearly 70,000 acres (more than 100 square miles) as of this writing.
One of the towns in its path was Woodfords, California. In 1987, the Woodfords Fire Department responded to a fire report on Forest Service land near their town. They, too, were turned away. Federal officials threatened Woodfords residents with arrest for even trying to extinguish the small blaze. Hours later, the fire exploded to 6,500 acres, costing 25 families their homes.
Apparently, the Forest Service has learned nothing in 34 years.
This “let burn” policy of federal land managers began in 1972, during the initial height of the radical environmental movement. Essentially, it is built on the idea that “fire is our friend.” It stems from the premise that fire is nature’s way of cleaning up forests and that active suppression of fires leads to a build-up of excess fuels.
That’s right, as far as it goes. An untended forest is like an untended garden: it will grow and grow until it chokes itself to death and is ultimately consumed by catastrophic fire. That is how nature gardens. The U.S. Forest Service, however, was formed explicitly to manage forests, to remove excess growth before it can burn, and to preserve our forests in a healthy condition from generation to generation. Or more simply, to do a little gardening.
In California, active land management reduced acreage annually lost to wildfire from more than four million acres in pre-Columbian times to just a quarter-million acres during the 20th century. Federal foresters suppressed brush growth and auctioned off excess timber to logging companies that paid for the harvesting rights. Those revenues funded local governments and the Forest Service.
Environmental laws adopted in the 1970s now require years of environmental studies at the cost of millions of dollars before forest thinning can be undertaken. Not surprisingly, that essentially brought the era of active land management to an end. The result? California’s wildfire damage has returned to its pre-historic level: More than four million acres burned last year. Nature is good at many things, but it is a lousy gardener.
In 1988, when the federal “let burn” policy produced the disastrous Yellowstone Fires, President Reagan reversed it. “I did not even know (the policy) existed… . The minute that this happened out there and Don Hodel went out, he made it plain that, no, we were withdrawing from that policy,” President Reagan said.
Reagan left. The policy returned. The devastation it has caused since then is tragic, avoidable, and incalculable.
Especially given the hazardous condition of today’s forests, the sensible policy would give top priority to extinguishing small fires before they can explode out of control.
Scrambling to explain their obvious dereliction of duty, Deputy Forest Supervisor Jon Stansfield complained that the Forest Service didn’t have the resources to put out the small fire when a single water drop by helicopter could have stopped it cold.
They had the resources to photograph it by helicopter. They had the resources to do countless airdrops after they allowed it to explode, and they had the resources to apparently even block a Calfire crew from putting it out.
The federal government owns 96% of Alpine County, leaving the county with virtually no tax base and entirely dependent on tourism attracted by the national forest. The fire has taken people’s homes and destroyed their businesses, and has severely damaged the forest resource upon which the entire economy depends upon for tourism.
It is dangerous nonsense to “monitor” incipient fires in today’s forest tinderbox, even if they seem to pose no immediate danger. No person in his right mind would “monitor” a rattlesnake curled up in his bedroom because it isn’t doing much of anything. He would kill it before it starts to make mischief.
In our national forests, only the Forest Service can prevent small blazes from becoming forest fires. It’s time they did.
• Tom McClintock is an American politician serving as the U.S. Representative for California’s 4th congressional district since 2009.