Guest Commentary: National Wildland Fire Management Policy and Firefighter Deaths…more rhetoric, no solutions

This is a version of an Op-Ed by Kenn & Susan McCarty that appeared in the Lake County Record-Bee.

Susan is a 16-year wildland firefighter veteran and a former United States Forest Service Hotshot Firefighter. Kenn is a 33-year fire service veteran and is presently a fire hand crew supervisor for the California Department of Forestry and Fire Protection (Cal Fire).

Immediately after the deaths of the Arizona firefighters on the Yarnell Hill Fire, in The Hill Journal, President Obama was quoted as saying, “…the Arizona firefighter deaths shows a need to reassess wildland fire management policy.” 

As laypeople we can’t authoritatively deny global warming. However, given our experience, education and training on the subject of wildland fire, we definitely believe there is a more basic cause and effect at play here; 160 years of well-intentioned wildland fire control has left us with overgrown, dead and decadent forests. We are increasingly seeing “the final proverbial straw” reached in western wildland regions.

South Hollow Fire, Uinta National Forest, Aug 2001 Image Citation: Doug Page, USDI Bureau of Land Management,

South Hollow Fire, Uinta National Forest, Aug 2001 Image Citation: Doug Page, USDI Bureau of Land Management,

Serious droughts have come and gone throughout human history; we’ve read where anthropologists credit drought as being a likely factor in the demise of the Puebloan (Anasazi) Indian culture 800 years ago. Tree-ring data has shown serious droughts in time periods and places where no human records are available. Despite its cause, drought certainly is one factor in wildland fire frequency and intensity. However, even during non-drought periods and places, we are seeing a near exponential rise in fire intensities and losses.

Fire intensity is primarily the result of two factors:

  1. Fuel (vegetation) Loading… specifically dead to live plant mass ratios as well as vegetation density which is measured in the basal stem count or in tons per acre.
  2. Losses… which are attributed to the increasing presence of human habitation within the Wildland-Urban Interface Zone.

With regard to losses… couple our presence with unwillingness to clear, thin or otherwise develop defensible space around homes and communities, and losses start mounting quickly. During the Cedar Fire  in San Diego County, California (2003) 4,847 structures were destroyed; this is 3.8-times the numbers of structures cumulatively destroyed in the 10 years from 1980-1989 which equaled 1,267. During the 10-year period from 1990-1999 that figure escalated to 8,905. From 2000-2012, it once again escalated to 12,265 structures lost to wildland fire.

With regard to fuel loading…160 years of wildland fire control has directly resulted in over growth which in turn attributes to the unchecked spread of disease and infestation such as pine bark beetle, black stain root disease, acorn worms, ticks, and blister-rust.

How are these diseases and infestations typically controlled by nature?…fire. Fire also regulates vegetation density. In the western U.S., many plant species and communities actually set themselves up to burn on a regular basis…what is referred to as the “fire return cycle.” These plants in fact require fire for health.

Through changes in their dead to live mass ratio, through actual biochemical changes in the plant during its life-cycle, as well as with germination and ladder-fuel shedding fire adaptations, these plants require fire for cleaning, gleaning and regeneration. Our old growth giant sequoia  and coastal redwoods have withstood the passage of fire many times over the past 3,000 years (2,500-3,000 years is the estimated age of the present living eldest Giant Sequoia redwoods) …but now, many present-day forest fires, which occur during peak and extreme burning periods, result in what is referred to as complete stand replacement fires.

This simply means that the forests are too thick and the fires too intense for what was once no problem, now causes the demise for our giant heritage trees. As a result, some state and national parks are embarking on forest restoration projects to thin heritage forest groves to what are referred to as pre-European forest density levels. There are many early photos taken throughout the western U. S. in the late 1800s and early 1900s that show forest densities before human habitation, logging and mining. These and much research by acclaimed scientists such as Harold Biswell of UC Berkley show the relationship between forest density and fire ecosystem health.

After the  Yellowstone Fires (1988), Several well written articles in respected nature journals reported on the many post-fire benefits in both wildlife and plant communities; such as, impressive wildflower years, reduction of ticks and an improvement in vegetation nutrition (new growth) as well as wildlife access to improved graze and browse relative to opened migration routes and the ability to reach the desired vegetation food; old brush can be very tall with all its dead/decedent mass in the lower half of the plant column. All of these factors led to healthier plant and wildlife communities. During post fire periods, improved wildlife habitat often means improved birth rate which often equates to improved prey/predator relationships. We personally experienced hiking in the lower elevation regions of the Sequoia National Park where we had to frequently stop to pick ticks off of ourselves…until we entered an area that had burned the previous year…suddenly, no ticks, wonderful wildflowers, some newly opened vistas and many more wildlife sightings.

So here we are now…we’ve disrupted this cycle and Mother Nature is saying “enough is enough!”  Despite our efforts, she will have her way sooner or later.  And the “later” here is: the Decker, Clampitt, Laguna, Panorama & Stanislaus fires (1950-1989) the Tunnel, Oakland hills, Topanga & Kinneloa fires (1990-1999), the Cedar & Old fires (2003) the Esperanza & Sawtooth Fires (2006) the Witch & Harris Fires (2007) the Butte & Iron Fires (2008), the Station Fire (2009) the Waldo Canyon Fire (2012) the Black Forest & Yarnell Hill Fire (2013).  All these fires were intense, wind & slope driven, with high losses of structures and loss of human life; these fires represent 89 lives lost and 8,076 structures lost.

This is going to require much more than a change in the nation’s wildland fire management policy.  You see, during the Yellowstone Fires, the management policy was to let the fire do what nature so desperately needed it to do.  However, in the public’s eye, in the media’s eye and in the political eye, the Yellowstone Fires were considered a disaster even though no one died and few structures were lost…one which gave the National Park Service much undeserved criticism.

As the political firestorm got stoked up in the media during the 1988 Yellowstone fire, the media focus became one of saving a historical building rather than allowing the Park Service to continue its core mission. One problem here is that natural fire isn’t just something that can be immediately extinguished when it becomes inconvenient…but the alternatives still elude us. Perhaps we deploy resources to simply help shepherd such fire around homes and communities which have already done their part in creating defensible space and retroactively implementing fire-safe building codes appropriate to Wildland Urban Interface Zones.  Perhaps we come to terms with concepts of hand and mechanical means of thinning combined with logging, bio-massing and shaded fuel breaks as a combined part of the solution where fire use is simply too risky.

Every potential ingredient just mentioned has environmental opponents. Smoke associated with prescribed fire use is considered air pollution even though smoke is a natural component (in this context) of the environment.  Logging, thinning, bio-massing and shaded fuel breaks in lieu of natural or prescribed fire use has been successful but is costly and labor intensive. Again, environmentalists often object to such practices.

A change in fire management policies?..YES…but without a wider cultural change of perception, management policies often get trumped by the public, the media, environmentalists and politicians who are still stuck with antiquated solutions and unrealistic expectations of the fire services.

We fear, once again, we are about to watch this administration chase its proverbial tail in a circle just as previous administrations on both sides of the aisle have done before.

In the meantime, firefighters like the Granite Mountain Hotshots are dying for what exactly?

Let it be known that the International Association of Firefighters does not accept the premise of “acceptable (human) losses” in the profession of firefighting.


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