If lightning strikes in the New Mexico wilderness and starts a fire, the blaze would normally be little more than a blip on the radar of land managers who have earned a reputation for letting flames burn to keep forested lands from growing into a tangled mess.
This season is different. Now firefighters are trekking deep into the Gila National Forest with trains of equipment-carrying horses and one overriding goal: snuffing out all fires, no matter how small or remote.
The US Forest Service’s decision is temporary, but after years of upholding fire’s natural ability to clean up the landscape, the agency’s about-face has drawn criticism from watchdog groups, some scientists and others who fear the agency might be setting the stage for an even more destructive season next year.
“At a time of both drought in the interior west and overall increases in average global temperatures, we will be seeing more fire on the landscape and not less. Yet this policy attempts to put our hands over our eyes and deny that reality,” said Andy Stahl, executive director of Forest Service Employees for Environmental Ethics.
“Rather than making our landscapes more fire resilient, we’re going to return to the mid-20th century approach and earlier of trying to stamp out every fire, which we can’t do,” he added.
This year has seen record-setting fire seasons in New Mexico and Colorado, fueled by searing heat, dry weather and strong winds. Those states are slowing down, but fire activity is ramping up in California, Nevada, Oregon, Idaho and Montana. On Wednesday, 11 new large blazes were reported across the region. Another nine were added on Thursday.
Forest Service officials acknowledge that decades of fire suppression have combined with drought, a changing climate and invasive insects to turn much of the West into a tinder box. The decision was purely financial.
“We don’t want to do this long-term,” Forest Service Deputy Chief Jim Hubbard said. “We know being able to use fire makes good sense, and we know some forests are very good at it and in their ecosystems, it’s the thing they should be doing.”
However, the agency cannot afford to let fires smolder week after week, constantly consuming firefighting resources as crews monitor the flames. Putting out fires quickly costs less, Hubbard said.
Fire suppression now accounts for more than half of the Forest Service’s budget. This year, the agency had US$948 million to get the job done, but projections show costs are likely to come close to US$1.4 billion by season’s end.
Critics claim it costs more to use slurry bombers and water-dropping helicopters to attack flames far from communities than to let fires burn in places like the Gila Forest or Montana’s Bob Marshall Wilderness.
Since the 1970s, managers of the Gila Forest have been letting fires burn when conditions allow. Researchers say that practice helped minimize the severity of a blaze that blackened more than 1,165km2 of the forest earlier this summer. Although it was the largest fire in New Mexico’s recorded history, experts believe most of the burned areas have a good chance at recovery.
The Forest Service’s new directive also carries another complication: the risk to firefighter and air crews battling blazes that otherwise would have been allowed to burn, Stahl said.
On Sunday last week, a 20-year-old firefighter was killed by falling debris while her crew fought what officials believed was a 50-hectare fire. The flames were threatening commercial timberland.