What Burns Me About the Way We Fight Wildfires

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What Burns Me About the Way We Fight Wildfires

By Emma Brown
Sunday, April 29, 2001; Page B01 http://www.washingtonpost.com/wp-dyn/artic...-2001Apr28.html


It's that time of year again: wildfire season. In southwest Florida, fast-spreading blazes, whipped up from a controlled burn and fed by the dry vegetation supplied courtesy of the state's three-year drought, have already seared thousands of acres of wildland. Across the country, as spring lengthens into summer, the government machinery aimed at preventing and suppressing the most threatening forest fires will crank into action. If highly visible fires break out -- and dramatic images are broadcast across the country -- they will undoubtedly be fought with the public's blessings and blank checks. That's what worries me.

For the past three summers, I've been a small part of the blaze-battling machinery. As a seasonal wilderness ranger for the U.S. Forest Service in Wyoming's Bridger-Teton National Forest, I have also, like hundreds of others who work for the service, been a reserve firefighter. Since last year was one of the worst on record for forest fires, I spent nearly half my time on the fire line. There, at the margin between green and black, I witnessed something that never showed up on the evening news: I saw U.S. taxpayers' money going up in smoke in pursuit of a sometimes-questionable goal.

I don't want to detract from the accomplishments and sweat of thousands of my colleagues. I know that last year many did back-breaking work while inhaling smoke on 60-degree slopes in the searing heat of midsummer, often putting their lives at risk. We all sacrificed a lot, including free time, sleep and stability. At times we protected homes, farms and schools, and I'm proud of that.

But I also know that a lot of us, dutifully following directions from supervisors, spent many well-paid hours doing precious little. And we did it fighting fires that didn't threaten homes or lives or property, and that could have been allowed to burn without risk. The policy of federal land management agencies is not to fight all fires; they now maintain that small fires are a necessary part of the forest's life cycle, and that if managed properly, those fires help keep the forest from becoming dangerously overgrown. And an overgrown forest is more vulnerable to uncontrollable conflagrations. But the theory isn't always the practice.

I was only a grunt in the firefighting army, but I saw a lot from my low rung. The first year, I thought the waste I observed was an unavoidable part of the job. But by my third summer fighting fires, I had become convinced that the public should take a critical look at our national firefighting practices and expenditures.

Last August, I was sent to a blaze in northwestern Wyoming. On my first day, I reported to the incident commander at 11 a.m. and waited to be told how to find my squad among the 90 personnel working on the 4,000-acre fire. Firefighters are divided into crews of 20, and each crew into squads of five.

I waited for three hours, along with eight members of a helitack crew. These are highly trained firefighters whose job is to rappel out of helicoptersto reach fires quickly.But they acknowledge that mostly what they do is sit around and wait for something to happen. When I joined them, they were sprawled in the grass or on lawn chairs, dozing in the shade of a spruce. Every so often, a helicopter would hover nearby and drop a line, to which one of the men would hook a bucket or a load of supplies. According to one woman on the crew, this is a simple operation, the equivalent of putting a car key on a ring. But it's dangerous because it takes place beneath a helicopter. Any dangerous procedure, whether it lasts two minutes or 18 hours, entitles workers to hazard pay -- an extra quarter of their daily salary -- for the entire day.

I finally found my squad at 2 p.m. They were hunkered against the drizzle in dry spots under subalpine firs, sleeping. The assignment for the day was to find any spot fires that may have been ignited by blowing embers on a green ridge across the valley from the main fire. They had conducted a fruitless search, and now there was nothing to do. I hunkered with them and fell asleep. Two hours later, we gathered our creaky bodies andwalked uphill for 20 minutes, then across the hill for 20 minutes, looking for smoke. When we didn't find any, we headed back down the hill to our truck. We helped ourselves to Gatorade from a cooler and waited two more hours, until the designated quitting time before driving back to camp for dinner. Since the main fire was still burning uncontrolled, we got hazard pay and overtime for our 14 hours; I earned $225 that day, more than twice my usual $88.

People may argue that despite our lack of activity, our role as lookouts was a cost that had to be borne. But too often, costs like that seemed avoidable. It appeared to me that the government throws resources at fire suppression efforts without taking a careful look at the fires themselves and the threats they pose.

That day confirmed suspicions I'd first had the previous summer while fighting a five-acre fire with 25 people. That fire was mostly out on day four, when the temperature dropped and it started raining. Yet we had stayed for three more days, keeping warm beside fires we lit ourselves, until our clothes and sleeping bags were soaked through and the project was no longer even slightly justifiable. This excessive vigil may have been undertaken because the fire's nearest neighbors, including actor Harrison Ford, owned multimillion-dollar homesseveral miles away. Or it may have been due to an understanding among firefighters that everyone wants to work as long as they can and make as much money as they can. Either way, it was a prime example of what my colleagues called "milking," and it has happened on every fire I've worked on.

During my summers of firefighting, I heard lots of colleagues speak hopefully about increasingly dangerous fire weather conditions. There were certainly those among us non-professionals who would fight fire for free if it meant they got to experience the thrill of live flame and the camaraderie of the crew. But they were a minority; the rest of us recognized firefighting as a lucrative break from our regular jobs. The consensus among people I knew was that "going on fire" meant working hard sometimes and relaxing often, and being paid well no matter what. Two years ago, friends of mine were sent to Mississippi to fight a fire. They told me they had ended up in an air-conditioned hotel room for as long as two weeks, watching cable and escaping occasionally to riverboat casinos. Last year, I heard one firefighter with 20 years of experience say that the firefighting in Montana, which had arguably the worst fires in the nation, was the "worst milking job" he'd ever seen.

We were not only well paid, we very well cared for. Each morning at the supply tent, smiling teenagers handed out boot grease, liquid soap, metal files, throwaway bath towels or whatever other goodies had arrived the previous evening. The emergency medical technician pitched lip balm, sunscreen, insoles for uncomfortable boots, moleskin to combat blisters, vitamins and Advil, all of it free. There was no sense of limit: Anything we needed -- and anything we wanted -- would be acquired.

Meals were hearty, and the firefighters' tastes given due deference. On the third night of ribs and coleslaw, there was a vegetarian uprising, so we non-meat-eating soldiers were shuttled to an inn, where we enjoyed $15 entrees amid warm and elegant surroundings. When firefighters' complaints about the food reached a low roar, a caterer arrived with tables and skillets and staff, and dished out gourmet meals: One night, we had salmon with two fresh salads, bread, sauteed mushrooms and cake.

The daily routine went like this: up at 6 a.m. for breakfast, followed by a briefing and several hours of standing around portable heaters waiting for orders before piling into trucks for the drive to the fire. We were paid for the entire day, but took long lunches and countless breaks. We were always waiting for something: waiting for the bucket drop, waiting for the rain to pass, waiting for word from the boss. My bank account was being enriched while I bent over hot chocolate and eggs or slumped in the shade of a tree, waiting for directions.

I know some waste should be expected in operations this large. But I wonder how much of it is really justified. Last summer, I watched air tankers from Idaho swoop in and drop flame retardant 10 times in one day on a 1,000-acre fire; but the $6,000 loads of retardant had no effect because of an incorrect mix of water and chemicals. Helicopters were used in non-emergency situations to shuttle crews over distances as short as one mile; it would have been faster and cheaper to walk. On one occasion, I worked with a group of 35 people on a 10-acre fire enclosed by a river on the downhill side and rocky slopes on the uphill side. This fire was burning itself out inside a designated wilderness, posing no threat to lives or property. Yet money and personnel were devoted to its suppression for a week.

Land managers know fire is a crucial ecological force; that lesson was driven home after the devastating 1988 fires in Yellowstone National Park. The changes in firefighting policy adopted since then have been explained by scientists and policy makers in countless agency publications, and their virtues have been thoroughly debated in the media. In fire training, we're taught about prescribed burns being used as remedies for years of blanket suppression, and that lightning-caused fires that start inside designated wilderness may be left to burn if they meet strict criteria. But on the ground, policy must contend with reality. And the reality I experienced was that old attitudes persist, and old habits die hard. Longtime firefighters who love what they do are fierce about putting out flames, and they are used to having ample resources to do their job.

In a year like 2000, with flames providing breathless TV footage daily, costs were unimportant and often overlooked: We had to put out those fires! Once, several moving trucks full of supplies from the National Interagency Fire Center in Boise arrived at our district warehouse in town, loaded with helmets, headlamps, pumps, tools, uniforms, batteries, sunglasses, drip torches, first-aid kits and more. These supplies had been paid for with federal funds earmarked for emergencies, and they were meant to be sent back to Boise at the end of the summer. But our engine foreman told us to use them to stock the district's fire cache, so the district's own budget could be saved and used at year's end to buy luxuries, like a miniature bulldozer, a laminating machine and Leatherman pocket tools for every employee.

We firefighters often received praise from strangers that only heroes deserve; we accepted it with reservations. Most of us were there for the money, or because we had been sent without choice. Only a minority of my co-workers over the past three summers were full-time firefighters. The rest of us had other jobs, but, working for the Forest Service, we had received a week's basic training in firefighting. So when the regional supervisor sent out a memo proclaiming fire the service's number one priority, both seasonal employees like myself and permanent employees had to leave our own jobs in fisheries, wildlife biology, recreation, wilderness, minerals or timberto fight fires that may or may not have needed suppression. It was disillusioning to know that my actual job patrolling the wilderness, which I had imagined to be part of an important effort to mitigate environmental harm caused by recreationalists in one of America's most spectacular mountain ranges, was unimportant compared with firefighting.

I think the cost of wildland firefighting remains unquestioned because so many people still believe it is a righteous war that deserves the solid financial and emotional support of the nation. Despite efforts to educate the public about fire's crucial role in healthy ecosystems, many people still think of fire as always dangerous and destructive. This attitude seems to leave no room for an investigation that might reveal the amount of frivolously spent money and energy.

I don't know the whole story. I only know my own experiences, but they're enough to make me concerned. Despite emotional reports of out-of-control blazes and screaming headlines draped across the front pages, the truth is that the situation is rarely so dire that we cannot pause to make wise choices about where, when and how best to use valuable and costly resources.

Emma Brown is a freelance writer who spent two months fighting the wildfires of 2000 in Wyoming.
 

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