Advice From Smokejumpers
The public regards firefighters as heros for saving our lives, homes, businesses and public lands from devastating wildfires. The men with boots on the ground have our undying gratitude. However, Forest Service policy changes have created devastating hurdles for todays firefighters. These changes have resulted in many more megafires as illustrated for us in this graph that was compiled by the National Smokejumpers Association.
The red line on the graph tracks the acres burned per year starting with the year 1910 on the left. The first three decades were before the smokejumpers existed, and during that time, the fires consistently burned about 23,000 acres per year. When the smokejumpers base in Cave Junction was established in 1943, the average acres burned per year plummeted to an average of under 770 acres per year. That was pretty consistent until 1981 when the Forest Service disbanded the Siskiyou Base.
From 1981 until now, the acres burned per year skyrocketed to about 28,000 acres per year in average years. Worse yet, there were four mega fires in the last four decades. The totals for the acres burned for the years of these megafires are: the Silver Fire at 150,000, the Biscuit Fire at 500,000, the Chetco Fire at 192,000, and the Klondike Fire at 134,000. This chart is in scale except for the megafire years because the red line would extend upward over 15 times the height shown for all the fires to be represented.
Regardless of how or why a wildfire starts, the most important thing is to get the fire out as fast as possible. That is the way it was between 1943 until 1981. The Forest Service’s fire management policy stipulated that all wildfires were to be suppressed by 10 am the morning after they were first spotted. They had a great success record for doing just that.
During the 1960s, policies governing wildfire suppression changed due to ecological studies that recognized fire as a natural process necessary for new growth. Fires caused by nature within wilderness areas were allowed to burn. This was one of the first policies to contribute to today’s increased burn areas.
The Beachie Creek Fire of 2020 originated in such a wilderness area; the Opal Creek Wilderness area. It started at approximately 2 miles south of the community of Jawbone Flats and 6 miles north of the town of Detroit, Oregon. According to Inciweb, the fire was first detected on August 16 and remained roughly 20 acres for the first week. Three weeks later, on the morning of September 7th, the Beachie Creek Fire was estimated to be 513 acres. A historic windstorm caused the fire to grow overnight to over 131,000 acres.
Two other fires that had also started weeks before, the Warm Springs Fire and the Lionshead Fire, merged with the Beachie Fire and was then estimated at 192,764 acres. These fires destroyed 1,288 structures, including 470 homes according to a damage assessment performed by Beachie Creek Fire crews. There were 8 people that died from these fires. Smokejumpers fail to see the logic of letting fires burn in the wilderness areas.
Smokejumpers also advise the Forest Service to use the smaller, cheaper and more agile airplanes to fight smaller fires. In the article “Save A Billion $$ A Year–The New Fire Triangle” by Chuck Sheley in “Smokejumpers Magazine”; Sheley advises to station a pair of Fire Boss aircraft on every forest. Sheley states that the Fire Boss aircraft or the Single Engine Air Tanker (SEAT) are quick loading, can scoop reload in 45 seconds from water source, cost $4,500 per day plus $4,500 per hour flight time when in use and has more than twice the carrying capacity of a medium helicopter. It can upload up to 20 loads (13,000 gallons) per hour depending upon suitable scooping source and make 20 loads/hour, more than a single load DC-10.
Large Air Tankers (LATS), that the Forest Service seems to favor, are six times as expensive as the Fire Boss. The Fire Boss provides a quicker response because they can be stationed at much smaller airfields than the LAT’s. They are also more agile resulting in more accurate drops of water or retardant. Smokejumper bases in strategically located areas such as Cave Junction, Oregon could significantly decrease the response time to fight fires. Smokejumpers have been advocating to reopen the Siskiyou Smokejumper Base since its closure in 1981.
Chuck Sheley Stated …“Let’s go back to the common sense point of view. Wouldn’t it be better to have six Fire Boss aircraft spread out around the forests vs LATs based at large airports miles away? As a jumper, I would love to have the advantage of an aircraft that could work a fire with me for over three hours, depending upon the water source. Regardless of the water source, six aircraft could certainly work more fires than one aircraft.… “We ponder that the LAT carries a very large load and needs a long takeoff and landing runway. It is located many miles from the fire. Due to the expense, the people on the fire do not want to call in a LAT when the fire is just a snag and one acre.”
The Smokejumpers are also concerned about the limitations put on todays firefighters. In the four decades when the Siskiyou Smokejumpers Base was in operation, the smokejumpers fought fires in any terrain. Todays firefighters are not allowed to fight fires if the terrain is “too steep” or the vegetation is too “wet and slippery”. One Smokejumper, Gary Buck, remembers that he would have been fired if he had refused to jump into such terrain. During the 40 years the Siskiyou Base operated, they never had a death while fighting fires in the rough terrain and bad weather. Firefighting today is more dangerous because of the extreme conditions caused by out-of-control megafires.
In regards to the claim that recent wildfires are the result of climate change, Quentin Rhoades, a retired smoke jumper who served at the Missoula, Montana Smokejumpers Base stated that.…“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 helirappellers 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?”
Rhoades continues: “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.” Rhoades has since become a lawyer and has represented people making a claim against the USFS and their current wildfire policies
Many authorities claim global warming and higher fuel loads are to blame for the horrendous fires we are now experiencing. However, an examination of the above graph supplied by the National Smokejumpers Association shows a dramatic increase of about 30 times the acreage burned starting in 1981. This increase corresponds to the closing of the Siskiyou Smokejumpers Base, not a change in the climate or fuel loads. Ironically, some reports claim that the higher fuel loads were the result of the decades of successful firefighting.
During a presentation made at a meeting that was partly presented and sponsored by the Salmon Challis National Forest, Dr. Paul Hessburg stated “until society realizes the biggest threat to our forests is global warming there are no clean cut solutions”. He also expressed to the audience that we need to quit blaming the Forest Service for their hands off policies.
Redoubt News published; “Era of Megafires – How do you want your fire? How do you want your smoke?“- an article written by Idaho State Representative Dorthy Moon in October of 2017. Representative Moon makes a different connection to the increased fuel loads. Representative Moon countered Dr, Hessburg’s opinion in her article with; …“I beg to differ. Decades of forest neglect by our federal land managers have brought the Megafire scenario upon us.”… “The U.S.F.S. must allow people to cut and clean out dead wood for personal use with impunity. This would be the most rational way to reduce the fuel load in our forests.” Others at the meeting were of the opinion that approval of more logging would have helped.
Quentin Rhoades had stated; “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.”
On June 28, 2021, the Agriculture Secretary Tom Vilsack announced that Randy Moore will serve as the new Chief of the U.S. Department of Agriculture’s (USDA) Forest Service. Randy Moore had been serving as Regional Forester in the Pacific Southwest Region in California since 2007.
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