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17.8.06

Fire History In The Klamath

Felice Pace makes a rare argument in favor of the let-burn strategy for handling wildfires. His basic storyline is that local fire management was doing just fine until the 1970s, when centralized military-industrial fire control rose to prominence. This new type of fire control engaged in environmentally destructive and counterproductive suppression activities. What we need now is a return to let-burn policies for fires in wilderness areas, with targeted suppression efforts when fires cross into areas where people live.

There's much that's right about Pace's story -- particularly his emphasis on the need for local control and his warnings about the environmental impacts of suppression and post-suppression activities. But the picture needs to be complicated a bit. First off, a nit to pick: the centralized military-industrial fire suppression system in the US dates back at least to the 1930s, when the Civilian Conservation Corps was enlisted to eradicate wildfire, and recieved a big boost from military surplus equipment after World War II. The effects of that system weren't as apparent until many decades later, though, because at first the system was successful in preventing big fires. By the 70s and 80s, let-burning was actually on the rise as the "all fire is bad" ideology began to be seriously questioned. One change worthy of further examination -- which Pace only hints at -- is the shifting balance toward involvement of the private/corporate sector in fire control in the later 20th century. (For example, it's the involvement of the private sector, not the central vs local issue, that's at the heart of the salvage logging question.)

Pace's article implies that if the old locally-based fire management system had been left in place, everything would be OK. But the old system was not as great as Pace imagines, and changes in the landscape would have made it outdated. This is not to say that the new centralized system is any better -- what's needed is a new sort of fire management.

This report gives some additional background on Pace's home region of the Klamath. From the time of the first white settlement until the advent of centralized suppression, dangerous fires were common. The strategy of let-burn in the backcountry and focused suppression near homes was not a product of humble wisdom about the environment, but of a lack of resources and ability to carry out wider-scale suppression. The early suppression efforts were successful, giving the region a reprieve while allowing the centralized system to maintain a low profile, perhaps creating an illusion -- especially to those, like Pace, who arrived in the area during this time -- that the traditional system avoided fire danger.

But whatever its success, the traditional system couldn't last forever -- due, in part, to newcomers like Pace. One glaring omission in Pace's account is the growth of the urban-wildland interface. The late-20th-century boom in the number of people living scattered around fire-prone wildlands creates an increase in the fire danger by increasing the number of people at risk. More significantly for Pace's proposal, an expanding UWI means an expanding area where suppression is necessary, and a shrinking area of backcountry where a let-burn policy makes sense.

These newcomers also typically make different demands on the fire protection system. Oldtimers may be content to let a backcountry fire burn (secure in their ability to control it as it draws near, or resigned to uncontrollable acts of god). But newcomers are more likely to demand that at minimum an impressive show of trying to protect them from fire and smoke. Merely localizing control would leave power in the hands of such comfy exurbanites.

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