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Ice cloud on controlled burn smoke column.
Controlled (Prescribed) Fire
By Del Albright
May 2000

In spite of the awful disaster that happened in Los Alamos, New Mexico (May 2000), where a National Park Service controlled burn got away and ravaged homes and thousands of acres (and other recent examples of a few controlled burns that got away), I contend that we should not lose sight of the beneficial uses of properly planned and executed controlled (or prescribed) fire. Fire applied under controlled circumstances is a great tool for forest managers and agencies that have to keep our public lands safe and healthy (not to mention protecting our homes and investments).

Here's an (updated) article I wrote on controlled burning a few years back that still has relevance today.

For those of you following the USFS National Fire Plan and/or the policy on the *safe and prudent use of wildland fire*.....let me follow up with a little clarification. First off, fire is (can be) good for the environment, especially if based on science.

As a person who has been in charge of a major prescribed burning program in California, I can attest to the need to use fire where appropriate. In my CDF experience, there were times where we control burned nearly 10,000 acres per year. We never lost one!

Most wildlife biologists (at least in the west) love to see small, controlled fires burning in areas of potential wildlife habitat -- especially where a mosaic type burn can occur that leaves *gaps* in the burn of unburned fuel. These gaps provide the cover for wildlife that can still enjoy the benefits of the burn (new growth, nutrient release, etc.). Wildlife thrive on new growth after a controlled burn.

Most, if not all fire managers will tell you that controlled or prescribed fire is a great tool for fire prevention. With fire, we can eliminate large buildups of forest fuels (large limbs on the ground), without burning down all the standing trees. It takes some science to do this, though. But when done properly, it gives us a place where the fuel types change enough to allow fire suppression tactics to stop a major fire, for example.

So what does this mean in light of the USFS (and the National Park Service) policy that says they will start letting more wildfires burn; and even using more controlled burning to bring the forest back to what some think would be a more natural state?

It means several things. First, in my opinion, it WOULD be a good thing if it were driven by science. It is not. Politics and budgetary deficiencies are driving this major policy change as with most all policies in government.

"Politics" comes from the President all that way down (and thru the federal bureaucracy staff). It is environmentally driven (by that I mean folks who would rather not have us out there using the public land). It is related to, in my opinion, the talk that took place about moving the USFS from the Dept. of Agriculture to the Dept. of Interior (Babbitt). Be glad that we have a new Administration in place (2001).

Now if you know anything about fire, you probably have already guessed that what has happened in Yosemite and Yellowstone a few years back was a major disaster (and faux pas) in the minds of most fire managers, wildlife biologists, and scientists. The Park Service mentality of *let it burn* is a disgrace in my mind. It would OK to let little fires burn the undergrowth or clean up the ground accumulation of fuels; but to let a crowning conflagration rip thru trees that are older than dirt is a crying shame. That is just my opinion.

Then on top of that the money we spent on protecting structures in and around these two parks would blow your mind -- unnecessarily spent tax payer's money. I know. I know people from state agencies who were sent to these diasters to lend a hand after the fires got out of control. I saw some of the bills and payments. Ouch. It would stagger your mind.

It would not be unusual for a wildfire to cost millions of dollars to suppress. The Old Gulch Fire, Calaveras County, California, 1992, cost nearly two million dollars A DAY for six days to fight. The Fountain Fire that same year cost over $20 million. Taxpayer dollars. The Darby Fire in Calaveras County (2001) cost $21million to suppress (while saving nearly $217million in homes and property). Big bucks!

We can't afford wildfires - certainly not ones we can prevent. We need to get politics under control.  We need to help politicians better understand what the radical environmental movement is doing to our forests and wildlands. We, the recreationists, need to be involved.

In this area of politics, we can't over look the fact that another mandate facing the USFS is the one about closing 6000 miles of roads per year. And let us not forget the Roadless Moratorium and Roadless Initiative, as well as the trend to circumvent the NEPA process with the use of National Monument designations. This garbage all started (and was encourgaed) under the Clinton Administration. Fortunately, I'm optimistic that the current Administration (Bush) can unravel some of these roadless ravages.

Actually, whether this is politically driven or budgetarily driven, the danger is the same. It would be easy to see how a current revision of a forest plan could start tying these road closures and burns into one package.

No matter how you look at it, if we users don't get involved, we'll lose.

Second, it's budgetary. The feds are being cut back. Fact. They are hurting. And whether this is a real budget crunch, or an imposed one (by the Clinton administration), it is still there. A budget crunch is one good way to make a major shift in priorities and policy. Timing is perfect. Less money, fewer people; change priorities. It happens all the time. So one could draw the conclusion that because the USFS isn't playing the game exactly like the Clinton's and Babbitt's of the world like, they get their budget cut so they have to establish new priorities while at the same time receiving new direction from other Clinton appointees. It is a real threat to motorized recreation and resource-based industries. Again, our hope lies in the politics of the new Administration.

As the USFS budget dwindles, they will have less ability to fight fire. So naturally, more fires are going to get bigger. They might as well do it on purpose and call it controlled burning (or the safe and prudent use of wildfire) least the public this way won't be at their throat as bad.

I believe we should support well thought-out controlled burning programs (and yes, the temporary road closures that may come with them). But if we're not there in the planning process, the gates will outnumber us before too long.

Something to remember these days is that we need to hold bureaucrats and politicians accountable for their actions. It can be a vicious circle, but nonetheless, when politicians cut federal budgets, folks don't get to go to training like they used to. Experience begins to dwindle. Tools needed to do the job right become less available. Money to properly treat the land becomes too tight. Morale begins to wane. Efficiency is affected in everything that takes place in government. It's all related -- much like our ecosystem.

Further, the year has finally struck when many baby-boomers have reached retirement age. In fact, the largest segment of our population is about to retire -- and those retirements are going to come fast and furious. It has already started.

Fire service managers are some of the first to go as the retirement age for many fire and law officials is younger than other professions. So you have to ask yourself, are these folks taking their experience and knowledge with them? And what happens next?

The answer is yes; many of our most experienced firefighters are retiring. The new folks coming up under them do not generally have the depth of experience and knowledge as the old hands. Relatively new and inexperienced personnel are going to be a much more common sight on fires -- wild and/or controlled.

This is where we the taxpayer should be saying to our elected officials who dictate over many state and federal agencies, that we want qualified folks with experience, doing the right thing for our land. And certainly, we want experienced and qualified fire service folks in charge anytime we're putting fire on the ground or fighting a wildfire. That may not be the case in the near future unless someone pays close attention.

So anyway, this sounds like a soap box, and maybe it is.....but we (the motorized recreationists and taxpayers) are going to get ripped if we don't tune in and be a player. The Babbitt's and Clinton's of the world (and the money behind them) want to see a different world than we do. It's not that we don't want wilderness or beautiful scenery; it's just that they want everything locked up, with no compromise. They don't want to let science rule the landscape or land management activities; they want politics to rule.

That is why I entered the fight. I refuse to let a vocal, well-funded minority rule the landscape. They need us for competition in the halls of congress. We've got to be there; and every little letter helps!

Feel free to write me if you have additional questions or need any help.

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