Many of the trials currently bedeviling the United States Forest Service result from failing to appreciate complexity. It’s not an uncommon problem for any organization, but the agency is facing stiff opposition to complex firefighting strategies that often end badly.
Fire retardant, a chemical fertilizer, may harm fish, birds, and people who depend on clean water. Andy Stahl, Forest Service Employees for Environmental Ethics (FSEEE), is suing the agency for dropping retardant into the waters of the United States. Observed effects of fertilizer use over 60 years, good or bad, have not been well documented. It’s an imprecise business, dropping retardant from the bellies of huge jets at low altitudes.
The agency has tried to minimize environmental impacts by using infrared technology, or “Thermalscan,” to detect fires before they get out of control. But the FSEEE is skeptical that the technology will be effective. They argue that infrared readings may not detect small fires in rugged terrain and dense forests, leaving them unchecked until too late.
The US Forest Service is also making an effort to create firebreaks around homes and other structures near potential blaze-prone areas, thus reducing the chances of a significant disaster in populated regions. In addition, some cities are introducing incentives for homeowners and businesses to landscape their properties with fire-resistant plants such as native grasses and trees.
Photos and video are circulating of Forest Service aircraft dropping fire retardant chemicals into Sespe Creek on the Howard Fire near Ojai, California, October 12. The area is a Wild and Scenic River in a declared Wilderness. According to Forest Service studies, there have been 376 occasions totaling 761,282 gallons of retardant between 2012 and 2019.
The Murphy Lake Fire in Washington State started on August 15. The Forest Service has let it burn for almost two months. The fire is now pouring smoke into coastal cities. There was no lack of firefighting resources. The fire ground is a small ridge, easily accessible by trained crews.
Forest Service Chief Randy Moore claims complete immunity from studying and documenting any activity related to wildfire management. Firefighting was specifically not included in major federal actions requiring environmental analyses under the National Environmental Policy Act (NEPA) and other administrative and substantive laws. The thinking was firefighting is an emergency and firefighters must pull out all the stops to put fires out.
The Forest Service must now balance short-term fire suppression with long-term environmental impacts. Firefighters are learning how to apply modern science to create an integrated approach for managing fuels to reduce the intensity of wildfires while protecting watersheds and wildlife habitats. These practices help reduce forest fires’ impact before they even start—for example, thinning small trees near communities or setting prescribed fires in vulnerable areas.
Putting fires out is no longer an emergency. Instead, Chief Moore is using wildfires to manage living forestlands. The results have been disastrous. From Phoenix, AZ, to Zenia, CA, and Rociada, NM, managed fires have burned millions of acres in the past three years alone, killed dozens of people, burned entire towns to the ground, and polluted air and water in Lake Tahoe, Seattle, and across the West.
Climate change plays a role, but Forest Service and Park Service leaders play a more significant role. Fire leaders have decided, with little public input, to burn 2,000-year-old sequoias, 400-year-old saguaros, and so badly degrade Lake Tahoe air and water that lawsuits are afoot to force the agency to put fires out. Period. Multiple groups have ordered legal briefs preparing to make Lake Tahoe great again.
FSEEE’s lawsuit is at best myopic. What does it matter if a few gallons of retardant are polluting streams? Letting giant fires burn and actively lighting them to make them bigger is wiping out thousands of miles of riparian areas completely, never mind the hundreds of miles of dead trees and animal carcasses in every direction.
The Agency has a new “five wildfire strategies” suite to choose from. “Put the damn fire out” is not one of them. They are “Monitor (let it burn), Confine (loose heard it), Contain (try to keep it out of the cities), Point/Zone Protection (save homes and infrastructure), and Suppression (presumably fight the fire). “Hybrids and novel strategies may…be developed as the situation demands.” It’s carte blanche.
It’s also the wild West. On September 9, 2020, widespread firing operations up to September 7 “resulted in successful burnout operations in multiple areas of the (August and North) Complex(es).” Lighting more fire on purpose also resulted in two of the biggest fire runs in history. The North Complex ran almost 200,000 acres and killed 16 people. In 2021 under similar circumstances, the Dixie Fire burned Greenville, CA, off the map. Post fire flooding following the Hermit’s Peak Fire in 2022 killed a family near Las Vegas, NM. The Forest Supervisor was reassigned. The Ranger had a heart attack.
It turns out the new fire policy takes 8 months, every year. Air tankers support the extensive firing operations with millions more gallons of retardant then ever before. It’s understandable why the Chief wouldn’t want to subject this craziness to public comments and public participation. It’s clear why lawsuits are forming everywhere. It’s not OK to keep doing the same things we’ve been doing and getting these results.