Money to Burn — Feeding Tax Dollars to Forest Fires
|December 1, 2013||Posted by Staff under Editorials|
Millions are required to fight conflagrations such as the Rim fire in and around Yosemite. But what about fire prevention?
This 2013 excerpt of the Los Angeles Times, Spt 6, is by Jamie Simons.
A fire like the Rim fire burned almost 400 square miles, in and around Yosemite. Fueled by dense thickets of pine needles, undergrowth and fallen trees, fires like this one do not move slowly along the ground, clearing the underbrush but leaving parts of the forest intact. Instead, the flames leap through the crowns of trees, creating infernos that are hard to suppress and denude wide swaths of forest floor, making the terrain more susceptible to erosion by winter snow and rain. Even the mighty sequoias, able to withstand most fires and even thrive because of them, are threatened by a crown fire’s staggering heat.
It doesn’t have to be this way. For thousands of years the Indians who made Yosemite their home set small fires to prevent such cataclysmic events. Contained and manageable, their fires turned Yosemite Valley into a meadow that attracted deer for hunting and kept people safe.
For decades, the federal government took the opposite approach. Worried about having to divert men away from the war and into the forests to fight fires during World War II, the U.S. Forest Service and War Advertising Council created the Smokey Bear character. What followed were decades of fire suppression and teaching Americans that fires must be avoided at all costs. The result has been an unprecedented buildup of combustible fuels that has fed massive fires across the West in recent years.
In the late 1980s, the government realized the danger of this approach and began the practice of brush clearance and controlled burns in strategically located parts of the national forests and parks. But even though the practice has brought success where it has been used, we are still more oriented to fighting fires than to preventing them. Big fires are terrifying, and the Forest Service is under tremendous pressure to put them out at all costs. Right now, fighting forest fires comes with a virtual blank check.
After years of living in Yosemite National Park, I learned that, contrary to the teachings of Smokey Bear, fire can be a welcome force for good. It rejuvenates the forest. It clears the way for richer, more diverse habitat. It is essential in the life cycle of the giant sequoia. And if you live in the mountains, surrounded by forests piled high with tinderbox-dry debris, nothing helps you sleep more soundly at night than being in an area that’s been burned.
Those people involved in fighting wildland fires know that managed burns, tree thinning, brush clearance — even letting wildfires burn themselves out when no people or structures are at risk — are the best tools in their arsenal when it comes to preventing future wildfires.
The Rim fire has so depleted the Forest Service’s firefighting budget that it had to borrow from money set aside for fire prevention. So far, just this one fire has seen 5,000 firefighters on the line with a price tag that is at $75 million and growing. Working with those same numbers, it boggles the mind to think of how much good could have been done throughout the United States to prevent these kinds of massive wildfires.
Ed. Notes: In some Brazil, some towns put their budgets on the ballot, so voters can decide what programs to fund. Could that work for a big country, too? Maybe put five or so broad categories on the ballot. It’d at least give politicians some guidance.