Fighting fire with fire not always a good idea, and maybe some fires do not need to be fought (eventually contained yes)…

May 6, 2009

If you build or buy a house in the forest or in the wild brush lands you should realize that a wild land fire could burn it down. You should not necessarily expect others who live in the city or even fire-protected homes in the country to pay the billions of dollars it takes for fire suppression in forest and brush lands.

That expectation and the fact that fighting wild land fires has become a major business has helped bankrupt the state of California. More than a million acres burned in 2008 and fire suppression costs for the state of California topped $1 billion. The federal government spent $1.4 billion fighting wild land fires, and half of that was for California.

Last summer was a disaster when fires were touched off by dry lighting and man-made causes. And there is the same problem all over the West.

Before the West was settled natural fires raged through the forests and then nature went back to work restoring them. The Indians were able to live with nature. But once the rest of us settled we changed things. So many people want a home in the woods and expect the same accouterments and services of urban life and at the same time probably expect to pay less in land taxes because, well, they’re out in the sticks.

In modern times it has gotten where house fires in the cities are an unusual thing. Firemen spend most of their time doing medical aid calls.

But every fire season it gets worse out in the forests and wild lands. Unusual weather patterns (climate change?) and the fact there is so much development out in the wild lands, results in great destruction of homes.

Now there has been an ongoing argument for decades between the environmentalists and the loggers (and so many of us, even members of those two groups, don’t necessarily fit at either end of that argument) with the so-called “tree huggers” not wanting to cut any of the forests for timber (where they get their building materials and paper for filing their legal briefs I don’t know) and the extreme end of the logging contingent wanting to mow down everything in sight.

And there’s the ongoing argument that says the forests need to be at least thinned of trees and brush cleared out in the process to lessen the fuel overload that is present now.

Personally I have no idea about the finer points of all of this but I would think that what we need is sound forest management practices that recognize the need for conservation and at the same time allow for the optimum use (conservation considered) of what is actually a renewable resource, and of course we need to make room for good old recreation.

This time around it might be better to let more wild land burn, eventually containing fires, of course. Nature will restore most of it. In my lifetime I’ve already seen many burned over areas coming back to life with nature’s magic.

As for living in the woods, well maybe if living in the woods was actually more like living in the woods instead of bringing the city with you.

And I would think that common sense should tell those who dwell within the forest that there is danger there. And if you can’t handle that danger on your own maybe you should live in the city. And if you expect fire protection you should expect to pay the brunt of the cost.

When I was a newspaper reporter/photographer and I went out to cover my first wild land fire I couldn’t figure out why the firefighters were setting fires to the brush with torches. A fire official had to explain to me that they were fighting fire with fire, setting a backfire that would burn up to the flames coming from the other direction and then leave them with nothing else to burn.

That was nearly forty years ago. Now I read in my hometown newspaper that some are calling that method, used so much today, suspect. Some say the fires around here (Northern California) that burned continuously all summer long and choked the air so bad where at times I was not sure we would make it through the day or night (we live in town) were made much worse by setting backfires (one problem is that sometimes the winds change and then the backfire is out of control). One property owner claimed 80 percent of his timber was destroyed in such a fire lit by firefighters and it did nothing to stop the original or main fire.

I don’t know, but I do know that more tax money is going to private fire fighting companies than public agencies nowadays.

Back when I covered my first fire I noticed that amid all the fire fighting activity a road was being paved. Someone commented to me: “firefighting is big business”.

I’m not so sure the taxpayers can afford much more of that big business.

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