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A wildfire in Northern California (Photo: USDA.gov)

Sorry, Forest Service: Fire is NOT our Friend

This ‘let burn’ policy of federal land managers began in 1972, during the height of the radical environmental movement

By Tom McClintock, August 4, 2021 4:43 pm

On July 4th, lightning struck a tree in the Humboldt-Toiyabe National Forest in Alpine County, California, igniting a small fire that smoldered for days in a quarter acre of rugged terrain.  According to Sheriff Rick Stephens, California’s fire-fighting agency, CalFire, dispatched a crew to put it out.  But they were told to “stand down” by the U.S. Forest Service, which proceeded to “monitor” the fire instead.  That is to say, they did precisely nothing.  Twelve days later, the “Tamarack Fire” exploded out of control, consuming nearly 70,000 acres as of this writing.

One of the towns in its path was Woodfords, California.  In 1987, the Woodfords Fire Department responded to a report of fire on Forest Service land near their town.  They, too were turned away.  Federal officials threatened Woodfords residents with arrest for even trying to extinguish the small blaze.  Hours later, the fire exploded to 6,500 acres, costing 25 families their homes.

Apparently, the Forest Service has learned nothing in 34 years.

This “let burn” policy of federal land managers began in 1972, during the height of the radical environmental movement.  Essentially, it holds that “fire is our friend.”  It stems from the premise that fire is nature’s way of cleaning up forests, and that active suppression of fires leads to a build-up of excess fuels.

That’s right, as far as it goes.  An untended forest is like an untended garden: it will grow and grow until it chokes itself to death and is ultimately consumed by catastrophic fire.  That is how nature gardens.  The U.S. Forest Service was formed to remove excess growth before it can burn and to preserve our forests in a healthy condition from generation to generation.  Or more simply, to do a little gardening.

In California, active land management reduced acreage annually lost to wildfire from more than four million acres in pre-Columbian times to just a quarter million acres during the 20th century.  Federal foresters suppressed brush growth and auctioned off excess timber to logging companies that paid for the harvesting rights.  Those revenues funded local governments and the Forest Service.

Environmental laws adopted in the 1970’s now require years of environmental studies at a cost of millions of dollars before forest thinning can be undertaken.  That essentially brought the era of active land management to an end.

The result? California’s wildfire damage has returned to its pre-historic level: more than four million acres burned last year.  Nature is a lousy gardener.

In 1988, when the federal “let burn” policy produced the disastrous Yellowstone Fires, President Ronald Reagan reversed it.  “I did not even know (the policy) existed…The minute that this happened out there and Don Hodel went out, he made it plain that, no, we were withdrawing from that policy,” President Reagan said.

Reagan left.  The policy returned.  And the devastation it has caused since then is tragic, avoidable and incalculable.

Especially given the hazardous condition of today’s forests, sensible policy would give top priority to extinguishing small fires before they can explode out of control.

Scrambling to explain their obvious dereliction of duty, Deputy Forest Supervisor Jon Stansfield complained that the Forest Service just didn’t have the resources to put out the small fire when a single water drop by helicopter could have stopped it cold.  Yet they had the resources to photograph it by helicopter, had the resources to do countless air drops after they allowed it to explode, and apparently even blocked a Calfire crew from putting it out.

The federal government owns 96 percent of Alpine County, leaving it with virtually no tax base and entirely dependent on tourism attracted by the national forest.  The fire has not only taken people’s homes and destroyed their businesses, but it has severely damaged the forest resource that the entire economy depends upon for tourism.

It is dangerous nonsense to “monitor” incipient fires in today’s forest tinderbox, even if they seem to pose no immediate danger.  No person in his right mind would “monitor” a rattlesnake curled up in his bedroom because it isn’t doing much of anything.  He would kill it before it does.

In our national forests, only the Forest Service can prevent small blazes from becoming forest fires.  It is time they did.

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9 thoughts on “Sorry, Forest Service: Fire is NOT our Friend

  1. In my area the FS refuses help until fires are out of control and then CalFire is called in to clean up their mess. Letting it burn is a good idea as long as it is done wisely (oxymoron when it comes to the Feds). Smokey the Bear has been the forests worst enemy as the ever increasing fuel load has been nothing short of disastrous.

    We need a massive program to log, brush and control burn if we ever want to see healthy forests again.

  2. So what is it greens??? Carbon offsets and climate change or “let it burn”???

    How much carbon and particulate pollution do these fires generate???

    Effing hypocrites…. and WE’RE deplorables???

  3. Well guess who’s going to get sued, all of this because of the epic stupidity of the corrupt United States government and environmental terrorists.

  4. Thanks for highlighting how Reagan improved this state. Wouldn’t it be great to have a logical Governor again? CA has no forest/land management. Voters continue to vote for politicians who allow us to burn alive with all electric cars and no power to charge them with. Water for the extinct salmon but farmers who supply our food chain.

  5. Thanks Tom.
    I went to work in the woods fighting fire with the California Ecology Corps (remember them?) in 1972, then went on to a 35 year career logging. Everything you said here is exactly what I’ve been telling anyone that would listen for going on 50 years.
    Anecdotal story- In the late 80s I salvage logged the Cottonwood burn, halfway between Truckee and Sierraville. It was started by a car’s catalytic converter that had been backed into tall grass. After seeing the fire when it was still just a large spot a friend drove to a place that his cell phone would work. He called the Forest Service office in Truckee only to be told “Okay, we’ll send somebody out”. Their policy was to visually do a smoke check and since they couldn’t see any smoke from their office they had to send someone 15 miles to get eyes on the fire. A week later the fire was 44,000 acres.
    The Forest Service has been completely dysfunctional my entire adult life and I don’t hold much hope it will change in the few years I’ve got left. But I’m glad Mr. McClintock is trying.

    1. great to hear some real experience. follows with my own account of red flag days. they tell us all about high fire danger on red flag days. what does the forestry service, cal-fire do differently on red flag days? patrols? logistics? thermal satellite scans? seems like its just another day,

  6. attention kids. this is how you de-forest a state, transfer private wealth to government and fill the government coffers. allow the government to collude with a known arsonist (pge). clear cut the burned forest, sell the logs to china. declare land a haz-mat area and blame it on climate change. seems no one has suggested using the logs to re-build. simple log homes would be better than a 3 dollar harbor freight tarp or a covid infested city. dont hold your breath, the price of lumber is all time high.

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