Inadequate wildfire policy highlighted in lecture

Elizabeth Stoeger, Staff Writer

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The 2015 fire season was the worst in recorded history with $2.5 billion spent in fighting or attempting to suppress wildfires and over ten million acres burned.

Visiting senior scholar, William E. Fleeger presented his lecture, “Our Annual Crisis: Is U.S. Wildfire Policy Sustainable?” on Thursday afternoon in Graf Hall.

Fleeger argued, “It seems like every year we double down on a policy that’s not serving us well. We spend more money, more resources, more effort to fight fires but it doesn’t seem to be solving the issue.”

The government has created many organizations devoted to fighting wildfire and wildlife protection.

In 1905, the United States Forest Service (USFS) was established in an effort to protect America’s timber resources.

Franklin D. Roosevelt’s New Deal spurred the establishment of the Civilian Conservation Corps (CCC) in the 1930s as a way to help preserve the environment as well as to employ men burdened by the Great Depression.

The CCC was put to the test in 1933 with the Tillamook Burn, one of the first cases of extreme fire behavior. Once the fire was initially extinguished, the same spot would burn every six years.

Nation emblem of fire prevention, Smokey the Bear was created in 1945.

The National Park Service (NPS) adopted a wildfire procedure called “Let it burn.” This new policy was an answer to the research being done on the high risks of fire suppression, which had been America’s previous strategy.

“Unfortunately, when you suppress fires it’s somewhat like putting your thumb over the garden hose. The pressure builds and builds . . . until finally it explodes.”

Fire suppression has lead to a fewer number of wildfires but much more severe ones.

This new policy was somewhat of a success but led to intense public uproar, especially when a wildfire broke out in Yellowstone National Park and the NPS decided to let it burn.

To their credit, the NPS “stood their ground and took their lumps and they learned from it.”

The Federal Land Assistance, Management, and Enhancement Act (FLAME) was passed in 2009 and they created a cohesive national strategy guide in 2014.

The guide focused on restoring and maintaining landscapes, creating fire-adapted communities, and effective wildfire response.

In creating a wildfire policy, securing funding for both prevention and the actual fighting of fires when they occur is a main consideration.

In recent history, the government has chosen to put more funds into suppressing fires.

Fleeger viewed this as ineffectual, “The more money that they [the government] spend on suppression, the less they can spend on all the other things that they do including trying to reduce fuels in advance of a wildfire. Those projects get put on the backburner.”

Looking toward the future, Fleeger recommended steps to make the response to wildfire more practical and efficient.

He argued that we should change the way we pay for fire suppression and utilize local land use and building code information to regulate development in the Wildland Urban Interface (WUI).

The WUI are the private homes at risk of wildfires. Currently, 40 percent of houses in the U.S. are in the WUI.

Fleeger said, “The most important thing we could do is go back to the model the Forest Service first adopted when they were effectively implementing forest fire suppression by working cooperatively with state and local governments” to both suppress fire and restore landscapes.

We also need firefighters to work not only in the thick of fire season but all year. They could “do prescribed burns on private lands, they could be reducing fuels adjacent to neighborhoods during the winter, they could be doing prescribed burns in the off season.”

He pointed to Flagstaff, AZ, as a “model” wildfire prevention program.

They maintain a crew in the off-season and work on prescribed burns on both private lands and, in some cases, neighborhoods. If someone is allergic to smoke, they arrange for the person to stay at a hotel and be out of the area during the burns.

We still have a long way to come in our wildfire policy but with people like Fleeger interested in the topic and exemplary programs like they have in Flagstaff, finding an effective solution is more likely than ever.