Sunday, August 17, 2008

Full suppression vs. fire use

The Mail Tribune newspaper in Oregon has an ongoing poll. The question is: "Should agencies send crews to remote areas to fight fires, or should the fires just be left to burn?" The three possible answers are:
  1. Send crews to fight fires
  2. Let fires burn in remote areas
  3. Depends on area
To over simplify this complex issue down to these three choices is ridiculous. It is difficult to understand how an informed person could choose, for example, "Let fires burn in remote areas". There are far too many variables for this to be a yes or no question.

Items that fire managers take into account are: is there a plan in place that governs how fire use fires are managed, the number of days left to a season-ending weather event, predicted weather, fuel moisture, Energy Release Component, natural barriers or old burns that would slow the fire, availability of firefighting resources, air quality, complexity, resources at risk, can the risks be mitigated.... and others.

This issue has received a lot of attention in the last couple of weeks, and even more after the deaths of the nine firefighters in the helicopter crash on a fire in a remote area of northern California. Several local media outlets have covered it, and now the Associated Press has as well. On August 9 Wildfire Today covered the banning of additional fire use fires on national forests in California.

Having worked on Fire Use Management Teams for several years, I have an understanding of the issue. These teams and the local agency administrators that delegate management of the fires to the teams assume and manage extreme risks.

For example, the Clover fire on the Sequoia National Forest in central California was initially a fire use fire, but in late June it exceeded the Maximum Management Area and burned east out of the forest onto private land, burning over 13,000 acres.

A few decades ago, we used the term "fire control". "Fire Control Officers" administered fire suppression organizations on national forests. But we finally admitted that we can't "control" large fires. Now we use the term "fire management". "Fire Control Officers" are now Fire Management Officers. "Fire Teams" morphed into "Incident MANAGEMENT Teams".

The forces at play are beyond our "control". The best we can hope for is to affect the spread of a large fire over a period of time. Wait for a change in the weather, vegetation, or topography, and then take advantage of it.

We will never be able to guarantee that a fire use fire will stay within an area drawn on a map. Occasionally a fire will get up and run despite the best efforts at management and computer modeling. Private land and even homes will burn.

Is the public willing to accept these risks? Or should firefighters assume the higher risks as we continue throwing everything we have at fires, even when they are many miles from valuable resources?

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