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Faster Wildfire Containment Possible 

The current firefighting techniques seem to favor huge profits for the companies that sell firefighting equipment and contracts

Faster Wildfire Containment Possible
A smokejumper from West Yellowstone, Montana jumps the Bear Lake Fire, August 24, 2014, using a ram-air parachute. The fire was on the Beaverhead-Deer Lodge National Forest in Montana. This image was taken from a video shot by a camera attached to the wingtip. Most of the jumpers at West Yellowstone are using the ram-air today. Photo credit: West Yellowstone smokejumpers.

Faster Wildfire Containment Possible 

by Terry Noonkester

The yearly devastation by forest fires in the Western United States could easily be reduced to just a fraction if the Forest Service would just listen to the Smokejumpers and firefighters they have employed through the years.  An example of the reduction in fires is documented by the Siskiyou Smokejumper Base, now a museum managed by Gary Buck, a retired smokejumper.  The museum is at the Cave Junction Airport about 3 miles South of Cave Junction, Oregon. 

After a very interesting tour conducted by Gary, us tourists ended up in the museum gift shop where there is a chart showing the statistics.  From 1910 to 1943, before the base was opened, the average accumulated acres burned was 20,000 acres per year in the region.  While the base was in operation from 1943 until 1981, the number of acres burned plummeted to an average of 770 acres per year.  Just 3.85% of what had burned in previous years!

In 1981 the Forest Service closed the Cave Junction Smokejumpers base.  After the 1981 closure and up to present time, the acres burned jumped to an average of approximately 28,000 acres per year.  That is about 36 times as many acres burned per year and includes four devastating fires; the Silver Fire at 150,000 acres, the Biscuit Fire at 500,000 acres, the Chetco Bar Fire at 192,000 acres, and the Klondike Fire at 134,000 acres. 

The cost of operating the Siskiyou Smokejumpers Base during the 38 years it was in operation was about 4 million dollars, the total acres burned was less than 30,000.  The next 38 years from 1981 to 2019 cost $750 million dollars and acres burned were over one million.  The above statistics were supplied by the National Smokejumpers Association.

An article by managing editor Chuck Sheley in the “Smokejumper Magazine” states that “the annual expenditure for fighting wildfires increased to almost three billion dollars in 2018, more than 12 times the amount spent in 1985 … you can see that we are in a critical situation–I would call it a National Crisis. It is now time for all members of Congress from the Western States to stand up and demand that we recognize that we have a problem that will continue to grow annually.

Chuck Sheley states that there is a way to save a billion dollars annually.  “My reasoning for this statement is based on rapid Initial Attack (IA) using three ‘arrows in the wildfire quiver.’ Let’s take a look at these ‘three arrows:  Smokejumpers, Fire Boss Aircraft, and the Klump Pump.  Smokejumpers for rapid initial attack–actually doesn’t have to be smokejumpers. The fastest resource to reach the fire is the answer.  Many Fire Boss aircraft stationed on forests. Less money than the LATs and quicker response. Six Fire Boss aircraft for the cost of one LAT–which resource could cover the most fires?  The Klump Pump–a tool that should change the way we fight fires in inaccessible areas. I could name multiple fires that could have been stopped at the early stage, but one stands out.”

“The Chetco Bar Fire in the Kalmiopsis Wilderness Area of the Siskiyou N.F. burned over 191,000 acres and cost many millions. This fire was covered in the October 2018 issue of Smokejumper. As smokejumpers, you scratch your head when you hear the rappeller crew didn’t go down to the fire because the hill was “too steep and the leaves too slippery.” We all know that in our experiences that excuse would have gotten us fired. Apparently, that is acceptable nowadays.”

“There are many factors here. An airline pilot discovered the fire 17 days after its start. Since the USFS had shut down lookouts, why wasn’t the area flown after the lightning storm? It is almost like this fire was ‘wanted’.”

“The Kalmiopsis Wilderness has burned many times since the 2002 Biscuit Fire. The USFS standpoint: Wilderness fires are natural and should be let-burn. This reduces the fuel load. If that is correct, why have we had a billion $$ in fire in the Kalmiopsis since the Biscuit Fire? “

From Quentin Rhoades, an ex-smokejumper who is now a lawyer and has represented people making a claim against the USFS and their current wildfire policies:

“We, the public, are supposed to understand that Global Climate Disruption is making wildfire more frequent and more intense in the American West. We are supposed to understand that the increase in urban/wildland interface makes wildfire of greater economic and human risk. We know that megafires release catastrophic amounts of carbon into the atmosphere. And we now know, from bitter experience, that megafires leave in their wake arid deserts incapable, among other things, of meaningful carbon sequestration.”

“Since these are the facts, then why are forest managers not becoming MORE aggressive with Initial Attack instead of LESS so? Why are they not using more smokejumpers and heli-rappellers instead of fewer? If there are going to be more wildfires than ever and the risks associated with wildfires–including the development of megafires–are greater than ever, then why NOT use the most aggressive Initial Attack strategies and tactics possible to keep the costs, risks, and impacts of wildfires in this new era as small as possible?”

“The answer is simple. The problem is a moral one. In fact, the once proud USFS has lost its fortitude and abandoned its former dauntless will to implement effective Initial Attack. Its loss of courage comes at just the wrong moment in history, when the costs and risks associated with wildfire are now greater than ever before. USFS stewardship was once characterized by a clear-eyed determination to fight wildfire with aggressive and effective means and intent.”

The movement for change is starting to form. It may take a long time to make this change. Contact your congressperson and local politicians. Let’s go back to a good forest management plan.”

Instead of listening to their own firefighters, the Forest Service administrators, and the House of Representatives that funds them, seem to be more involved with taking the advise of lobbyists and former Forest Service employees who use the revolving doors between public service employment and corporate positions. The current firefighting techniques seem to favor huge profits for the companies that sell firefighting equipment and contracts rather than focusing on how best to put out the fires.

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