Wildfires keep winning, more than 100 years after the U.S. Forest Service declared war on them. The tools to prevent wildfires are shackled by unpopularity, lack of money and policies that don’t make them easy to use. That’s why prescribed burns, such as the ones you may see on the horizon over the next few days, are necessary.
The old way of combatting wildfires was to put them out as fast as possible. In 1935, the Forest Service had an official “10 a.m. fire policy.” Wildfires were supposed to be out by 10 a.m. the next morning. If not, the deadline was moved back to 10 a.m. the next day until the fire was out.
That policy and other policies of never letting fires burn helped to create forests choked with fuel. Fire was effectively detached from the system. After decades of those policies, logging and thinning were also dramatically reduced by the Endangered Species Act and other regulations.
It has been a recipe for wildfires getting wilder. Some 161,000 acres of Oregon forestland burned in 2012. The Barry Point Fire, along the Oregon-California border, was one of the worst examples. It became an explosive crown fire, bursting through the treetops, burning 93,000 acres in total. That’s 145 square miles.
There’s no easy solution. As U.S. Sen. Jeff Merkley, D-Ore., highlighted a few weeks ago, the Interior Department even reduced funding for its Hazardous Fuels Reduction program to $95.9 million in the 2014 budget. That’s a cut of $88.9 million from the pre- sequester level in 2012.
“Is there some type of fundamental insight that hazardous fuel suppression no longer merits the funding it’s had?” Merkley asked.
No, Interior Department officials said, though they used many more words.
Prescribed burns produce smoke. The burns sometimes escape. The Wizard Fire near Camp Sherman escaped in 2008, burning about 1,800 acres. Opponents also argue that the burns can hurt the environment. But prescribed burns remain one of the better tools the Forest Service has to tame wildfire.