by Kathleen Ryan
DENVER – For decades, the U.S. Forest Service let small fires in remote areas burn naturally, in recognition that fire was part of the natural landscape, and thinking that by letting some fires burn, larger fires could be prevented. But last year, every fire was fought unless granted special status. That’s been acknowledged as part of the reason the Forest Service spent more than $1 billion fighting fires in 2012.
Now, the agency is taking the “fight all fires” directive off the books. According to Timothy Ingalsbee, executive director of Firefighters United for Safety, Ethics and Ecology (FUSEE), it means flexibility in making decisions this season.
“Our response to fire has to be tailored to the conditions of the fire and our goals for the piece of ground it’s burning on,” he stated.
This year’s policy change comes from U.S. Forest Service Chief Tom Tidwell. And it comes as at least four Front Range cities, Denver, Aurora, Colorado Springs and Fort Collins, are considering water rationing to deal with the lingering drought. Denver Water said the mountains will need at least eight feet of snow by the end of the month to get the snowpack and the water table back to normal.
Ingalsbee said the blanket policy of “fighting all fires” meant some Forest Service resources were spent on smaller, lightning-caused blazes that in the past, would have been allowed to burn.
“Which,” he said, “enables fire managers to use fire to benefit the ecosystems, especially those ecosystems that depend, or require, wildfire to maintain their ecological health and integrity.”
The more aggressive wildland fire policy instituted last year was prompted by fears that fires left unchecked would quickly devour large swaths of the drought-stricken West. Colorado and New Mexico reported record fire seasons in 2012.
Ingalsbee’s report can be found at bit.ly/Nji6Hv.