Monday was just the beginning of a crazy week (see the previous entry, Come to Me, for that story). Things went decidedly downhill Wednesday, when I was called out before dawn to a wildfire.
I’m decidedly not a firefighter, so why was it a medical call? The person who called it in said there were people fleeing, and unknown injuries. Well before anyone arrived, updates made it pretty clear there were no injuries, but since I was in the area, I may as well continue in to help set up the Command Post.
Since there was no hurry, I pulled over on the highway to take a photo as soon as the fire came into view, still from several miles away. Doesn’t look like much, does it?
Just wait. Dry summer and fall — no rain in weeks. Still pretty warm around here, with the National Weather Service frequently issuing “fire watch” and “red flag” advisories, which means some combination of low humidity, warmer than usual temperatures, and/or gusty winds. It grew quickly in what quickly became the catchphrase around here: “tinder-dry forest.”
By afternoon it was raging in difficult-to-reach, steep wilderness.
Why Aren’t They Fighting It?
Here in the Social Media Age, rumors and complaints flowed freely. Such as, “Why isn’t the county emergency manager setting up burning restrictions, and getting this fire put out?” Or, “Why don’t they have slurry bombers making quick attacks on this before it grows?” and the related “They’re just letting it burn because it’s good for the forest in the long run, and besides, they don’t care.”
Most of it borders on slander. It’s not the county emergency manager’s job to fight fires, it’s his job to set up contingency plans (read: tons of paperwork to satisfy federal requirements), and then use those plans to provide resources to the people who do respond to the various emergencies. Not to mention he can’t just arbitrarily impose burn restrictions: it’s the sheriff’s job to recommend to the Board of County Commissioners to pass an emergency ordinance. But even if he did do that, it doesn’t apply in federal wilderness lands!
And why not aircraft laying down that orange fire retardant? Because you don’t want that in your water! This one is called the “Owl Creek Fire” because that’s one of many creeks in the area, which flow into the river, which become municipal water supplies. Not to mention that it takes time to get big assets like that ordered up to rural areas.
But can’t they just fly right in? Sure: but then you need people to load up the tanks, and the stuff to put in the tanks, and a place to land the plane so those people can do that job. You can’t do that “immediately,” or even “today” in most cases. In this morning’s briefing, the Incident Commander noted that a “Kmax” helicopter, capable of carrying 2,500 gallons of water, is arriving soon. No retardant doesn’t mean no water!
And while it is in fact good for the forest in the long run to burn out the undergrowth, to say the firefighters “don’t care” whether it burns or not is pretty illogical: why would they be here if not to fight fire? If they were going to let it burn, why pay to bring them all in?
What they are doing is difficult to see from miles away: they’re getting well ahead of the fire and setting up fire breaks, using natural terrain features and roads to help set them up quicker.
The Usual Culprit
What’s the culprit in all of this? The usual! Thinking — or the lack thereof. If people did that, they’d realize that there’s not some “vast [you choose: left- or right-] wing conspiracy” to make the fire worse. Rushing people in there means you greatly increase the risk to their safety, so why not do something effective that doesn’t put them in danger? Duh?
I get it: fires are scary. But thankfully it is in a wilderness area, which means there aren’t houses and businesses burning down.
We’re not suffering like the people of Paradise, Calif., where (allegedly) poorly maintained power lines sparked a fire that burned 153,336 acres (240 square miles, or 62,053 ha), killing 85 people and burning down nearly 19,000 structures.
Really, most people around here are pretty relaxed, though a lot of us were watching like hawks and saw a new “spot fire” start yesterday evening, nearly a mile downwind of the main fire. Yet the firefighters knew it too: a spotter plane patrolling the fire called it in almost immediately. And all was OK: even that was within the boundary where the firefighters are cutting lines, hoping to stop the fire if rain and snow doesn’t do it before it gets to their fire breaks.
The “favorite” thing I hear about the situation is, “This forest is just as mismanaged as California’s, and we’ve seen the disaster there!” That comes down to thinking too: excluding the territories, there’s about 820 million acres of forest in the U.S. — well over one third of all the land. The same people who point fingers and scream “mismanagement” tend to be the same people who say “we pay too much in taxes!” Yep, “management” takes money, and plenty of it. And when you hold it back, undergrowth happens.
So as usual it comes down to: put up (the money to do the work), or shut up.
Not to mention it’s a lot cheaper: the economic cost of the Paradise fire alone exceeded $16.5 billion. It would have cost less to prevent the fire.
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