Who "owns" wildfire?

Who "owns" wildfire?

Editor's Note: to read Jim Petersen's complementary essay Slouching Toward Hell, click here.

Who “owns” wildfire?

Mark Finney, a PhD wildfire ecologist at the Forest Service’s Rocky Mountain Research Station in Missoula, Montana, asked this very timely question last week in a meeting with the Missoula County Commissioners.

“If you think of it like health care, it’s like we get rid of all the doctors’ and dentist’s offices and only use emergency rooms and ambulances,” Finney explained in a report filed February 12 by Missoulian reporter, Rob Chaney.

“If we did that, the general state of our health would be terrible,” Finney told the commissioners. “Yet that’s what our fire management program essentially is.”

Dr. Finney’s health care analogy is a good one, but the wildfire situation in the West is made even worse by the fact that we also leave the dead bodies to rot where they fall. More on this in a moment.

“We own the idea that health care is a necessity these days,” Finney told the commissioners. “It’s not like medieval Europe where everyone was either young or dead. We need to move to something that involves less emergency treatment and more health maintenance. With fire, that’s something we’ve never had.”

Dr. Finney is correct. And while he didn’t say so, I will opine that Congress and the Forest Service aren’t much further ahead in their approach to preventive forest maintenance and wildfire management in National Forests than Medieval Europe was in health care 500 years ago. We were ahead following World War II, but now we are sliding back into a fiery abyss.

Most Americans own health insurance policies, and the government is attempting to cobble together coverage for those who can’t afford it. But, as Dr. Finney explained, “nobody owns wildfire. “It’s a natural disaster – an act of God. Then everybody gets to claim to be a victim.”

Frankly, I think we are victims to the extent that Congress refuses to adequately fund the Forest Service’s forest research, management and firefighting budgets. Nearly half the agency’s annual budget is now consumed by wildfire.

Why are we again living in Medieval Europe? Why are we slouching toward Hell, a question I first raised in a January 24 essay by the same name.

I think Congress fears the “leave it to nature” crowd camped out in House and Senate hallways more than it fears the wildfires that are destroying the West’s treasured National Forests. This despite Forest Service estimates that 90 million acres [an area almost as big as Montana itself] are now at high risk, meaning that, here in the West, the worst is yet to come.

Dr. Finney’s meeting with Missoula County Commissioners was prompted by last summer’s dreadful 1.4 million-acre wildfire season – the worst in Montana since 1910 - the year the Big Burn leveled three million acres in northern Idaho and western Montana, most of it in two terrifying days and nights.

We were in western Montana for the worst of last summer’s wildfire season. Air quality at Seeley Lake was so godawful in late August and early September that the state’s monitoring equipment could not accurately measure particulates raining down from the Rice Ridge Fire. Had the wind changed direction, the town would have been incinerated.

The situation was just as perilous at Sisters, Oregon. The town’s annual music festival, an event that attracts thousands of tourists, had to be cancelled. Carcinogenic smoke was so thick that traffic moved at a snail’s pace on the Santiam Highway, easily one of the most picturesque routes in Oregon. Many living along the nearby Metolius River feared they might lose their homes. No word yet on how much the Mill Fire cost largely seasonal businesses in Sisters.

The Eagle Creek Fire, which burned in the Columbia Gorge east of Portland, forced the closure of Interstate 84 between Hood River and Troutdale. Westerly winds filled downtown Portland with acrid smoke so thick that thousands stayed home from work. Seattle didn’t fare much better after southerly winds blew in putrid smoke from British Columbia wildfires.

It was even worse in California. Insurance companies are still tallying their losses in Wine Country and numerous affluent enclaves in southern California. The last number I saw as $12 billion. Insurers are cancelling homeowner policies in the highest risk areas.

You would think this calamity would have motivated Congress to sweep the deadwood from House and Senate hallways, but it didn’t. We’re still trudging steadily back into the Dark Ages, still slouching toward Hell.

We who own this damned wildfire mess need to start asking Congress some tough questions. I can think of no better place to start than the Forest Service’s draft plan for picking up the pieces at Rice Ridge. Of 160,000 acres burned, the agency proposes to salvage some standing dead timber from 5,947 acres.

And the rest? Those charred carcasses will be left to rot where they fall. Thus is the Forest Service’s reading of the reams of ambiguous and counterproductive rules and regulations Congress has written at the behest of the “leave it to nature” rubble that clogs its hallways.

I asked a Seeley Lake friend if he had any idea how much dead and dying timber was standing in areas that could be legally salvaged.

“About 100 million board feet,” he replied.

“And how much will be salvaged, I asked.

“About 30 million feet,” he said.

And the other 70 million board feet?

Carcasses left to rot where they stand.

We own those carcasses – conservatively worth about $30 million at today’s log prices - just as surely as we own the Rice Ridge Fire itself, the wildfire colossus sweeping the West’s National Forests, and the gas bags in Congress who still refuse to adequately fund the Forest Service’s management, wildfire and restoration budgets.

That $30 million in standing dead timber at Rice Ridge would buy a lot of forest restoration work around Seeley Lake It also represents a two-year log supply for Pyramid Lumber Company, which has stuck its neck out to help the Forest Service countless times over the last 15 years. Add in Pyramid’s operating costs for two years and we’re close to $100 million. Contractor losses? Local businesses losses? I’d guess another $20 million, possibly more.

We who own the West’s wildfire crisis, and annually pay its cleanup costs, might also want to consider cleaning out the deadwood in Congress next November. By then, we should have a fairly good idea how many billion dollars the 2018 wildfire season has cost us.

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