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Rae: Fire threat calls for a better battle plan

Guest writer Rusty Rae is an award-winning photojournalist, writer and photo educator. He’s worked for the News-Register for the last five years, as sports editor, photojournalist and associate editor of Old Stuff, an ancillary publication of the company. He initially worked for the N-R out of college. He’s traveled extensively, both throughout this country and the world beyond. He and his wife, Sheila, reside in Mac with their Welsh terrier, Jack. He holds a bachelor’s in journalism from Linfield and an MBA from the University of Washington.

 

The simple fact of the matter is that, at least in the short term, due in part to climate change, we will regularly face the threat of large, potentially out of control forest fires.

These fires are increasingly costly in terms of funding needed to fight them, as well as losses to public lands, private property and the lives of firefighters and citizens. Their impact has ballooned over the last several years, as the size and severity have grown.

But with more emphasis on planning, preparation, funding and training, and more innovative approaches to attacking the problem in the field, we can find better ways to cope.

In 2018, our state logged 1,880 fires burning nearly 900,000 acres — an area larger than Rhode Island. The cost associated with just fighting these blazes exceeded half a billion dollars. And that’s becoming more the norm than the exception.

While forest fires tended to keep to remote areas in the past, more recently, homes and communities have become ever more common casualties. We only need to look at the Paradise Fire in California, or the bleak Oregon statistics showing that more than 4,000 homes were destroyed by forest fires last year, to understand these fires are no longer limited to unpopulated areas.

There are a number of factors contributing to these horrendous blazes.

Climate change creates a deadly mix of dry fuels, extended drought, extreme wind and proliferating fire-starting sources. With respect to ignition elements, human carelessness ranks at the top of the list, accounting for more than 80 percent of all forest fires.

Unfortunately, the prevalence of these fire-starting ingredients, combined with a current lack of resources, likely will cause massive forest fires to become regular events.

More than 100 years ago, Albert Einstein noted, “We cannot solve our problems with the same thinking we used when we created them.” And it’s time to bring that mentality to wildland firefighting.

That’s not to discount the passionate and dedicated people from multiple agencies working to ward off these cataclysmic fires in the first place and putting themselves in harm’s way to beat them back when prevention falls short. However, there are three areas where a little out of the box thinking might make a difference.

We need a more centralized command structure, better resources and more emphasis on attack from the air to blunt these raging forest flames.

Currently, multiple agencies may be involved in the management of a major blaze. There appears to be an alphabet soup of agencies in play.

We’d be better served if we had a firefighting czar — if that’s the proper term — to oversee tactical approaches and delivery of resources in a more coordinated and effective fashion.

A good friend — the late Dave Heerensperger, who launched a successful hardware chain back in the 1960s — used to preach, “There’s a difference between effort and results.” For many reasons, when it comes to wildland firefighting, we seem to have men and women risking their very souls without getting satisfying results.

I’m reminded that in World War II, it took Gen. Dwight Eisenhower to coalesce the many allied forces together for the final victory in Europe. That sort of leadership is needed to effectively fight these fires. 

Mark Thibibeau, an interagency fire communications specialist, noted, “Obviously, early detection and having the right resources at the right time are keys for successful extinguishing of these blazes.” He went on to say, “A mix of aviation resources and boots on the ground is what puts out fires.”

It seems we’re always short of qualified and experienced boots on the ground. So here’s an idea whose time may have come — training and certifying members of the National Guard to become Level One wildland firefighters.

There are more than 400,000 members in the National Guard nationally. Let’s assume 25 percent were trained in firefighting. That would give the U.S. Forest Service 100,000 trained men and women available at any given time.

Admittedly there is a cost. But when we consider the cost we are incurring in the loss of property and lives, it seems like a no-brainer.

Leadership must recognize the need for more boots on the ground and develop a plan and budget to put them  in place. Much of the training is available online these days, and the field training could be handled easily in weekend sessions.

Aerial resources are also in short supply. We need more airplanes and crews to lay down water or retardant in a quantity sufficient to vanquish these insidious conflagrations.

Thankfully, the Air National Guard is already providing significant assistance. But more air resources are required.

There’s little doubt this is an expensive investment, so congressional representatives must develop the budget for the good of the land and the people. One shortcut might be raiding the boneyards in the Arizona desert, where there are hundreds of aircraft of all sizes awaiting a new life.

Currently, there are several companies operating small fleets of air tankers capable of dropping 3,000 to 12,000 gallons of water or retardant. What if there were 50 fielding aircraft in various sizes and configurations?

Like any battle, the requirements for fighting a forest fire are diverse. The reality is that specially configured aircraft are needed so small blazes can be extinguished before they grow into out-of-control disasters.   

Not only is there a need for aircraft, but also for trained pilots and support teams. Training is required to transfer the experience and wisdom of current crews to those who will come next.

We also need to develop more effective tactics featuring better integration of air and ground resources. There are private organizations that have begun to supply such resources, but more are needed.

As the late Gen. Colin Powell once said, “There are no secrets to success. It is the result of preparation, hard work and learning from failure.”

We’ve learned much from our failures. Now is the time for us to invest in the preparation and hard work this threat demands.

Comments

Don Dix

Rusty has some interesting ideas. However, getting those who designate the path that resources are spent to listen is quite another challenge.

From the article --'Climate change creates a deadly mix of dry fuels, extended drought, extreme wind and proliferating fire-starting sources.'

Dry fuels aren't new, only neglected (no clean up) -- drought has always been on and off, especially in the high desert areas -- wind is simply the result of weather systems and timing, weak or strong -- but when you add in so many fools who are unfamiliar with how to conduct themselves in the outdoors, here we are.

Start at the beginning -- clean up the forest floor. That's where fires are fed and proliferated -- and if the fuel is minimal, fire are much less severe.