Frank Carroll


A recent issue of Wildfire magazine, the official publication of the International Association of Wildland Fire, outlines three major factors in the transition from fires 30 years ago to the extreme wildfires we are seeing now. Broadly, the authors cite climate and how climate change may be affecting fire size; second is fuels and how dense unmanaged fuels are contributing to wildfires; third is people, especially housing developments in the red zone where fire is expected but houses are not designed for fire.

Climate is a difficult thing to grasp, especially in a localized area like the Black Hills. Fuels are easier for us to understand but still difficult for us to confront because of costs and regulations which may hinder fuels management. People may be the toughest nut to crack and also the solution to the other two. People have to, first, understand and, then, act to do what we can with climate change and fuels. We also have to regulate ourselves and our development practices to make sure developers and homebuilders are paying their fair share of the wildfire mitigation risks we all face from their development activities.

The authors do not address another human factor which is the behavior of fire teams and the effects of fire management objectives on fire team strategies on large fire growth.

In the past, we fought fire directly with one foot in the black while attempting to confine the fire and put it out as quickly as possible, limiting the size to as few burned acres as possible. This was the quickest and safest way to fight fire, with the least risk to firefighters and the public, and the best protection of natural resources.

The US Forest Service has outlined new key messages for 2019 and they are surprising. “[Firefighting] Tools include mechanical treatments, prescribed fire, and unplanned fire in the right place at the right time,” the agency says. Unplanned fire use is now a central theme and the most widely used tool of Forest Service and some state land management agencies and is used with greater frequency than ever before. Using unplanned fire and indirect large-scale burn outs is often detrimental to natural resources and private property rights.

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Unplanned fire is now responsible for more forest management acres of accomplishment than any other single land management activity.

It is the Forest Service’s intent “To diminish the “fire deficit” and thereby mitigate fire risk…[by stepping] up the use of prescribed fires and managed wildfires in concert with mechanical treatments. Working with partners and stakeholders, the FS can find opportunities in fire-adapted forests to reintroduce the right kind of fire at the right time in the right places to achieve desired ecological conditions.”

Reintroducing the right kind of fire at the right time in the right places is the new default firefighting, fuels management, and land management strategy for the National Forests. The resulting running head fires, every bit as severe as the main fire, are doing unacceptable damage to ecosystems, often reset the ecological clock for forest succession, and creates large unwanted brush fields.

The new fire-centric natural resource objectives and blank check approach to firefighting mean the agency is using wildfire to manage land without having to prepare environmental documentation (EISs) or go through public comment and input phases of project planning. There is no oversight, no public input, and no way for private landowners and others to have any say in fire management tactics or strategies. This practice is particularly detrimental to the forest products industry, to owners of tree farms, and to those who manage their lands to reduce fire effects.

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Frank Carroll is a freelance writer and columnist. He can be reached by emailing frankcarrollpfm@gmail.com or visiting blackhillsforestpros.com.

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