Threat of fire calls for better battle plan
Guest writer Rusty Rae is an award-winning photojournalist, writer and photo educator. He has worked for the News-Register for the past five years, as a sports editor, photojournalist and associate editor of Old Stuff, a subsidiary publication of the company. He first worked for the NR after graduating from college. He has traveled a lot, both in this country and in the world beyond. He and his wife, Sheila, reside in Mac with their Welsh Terrier, Jack. He holds a BA in Journalism from Linfield and an MBA from the University of Washington.
The simple fact is that, at least in the short term, in part because of climate change, we will regularly face the threat of large, potentially uncontrollable forest fires.
These fires are increasingly costly in terms of the funding needed to fight them, as well as losses to public lands, private property, and the lives of firefighters and citizens. Their impact has exploded in recent years, as the size and severity has increased.
But by placing more emphasis on planning, preparedness, funding and training, and adopting more innovative approaches to tackle the problem on the ground, we can find better ways to cope.
In 2018, our state recorded 1,880 fires burning nearly 900,000 acres – an area larger than Rhode Island. The cost associated with fighting these fires alone has exceeded half a billion dollars. And this is becoming more the norm than the exception.
While forest fires tended to be confined to remote areas in the past, more recently homes and communities have become increasingly common victims. One need only look at the Paradise Fire in California, or the grim statistics from Oregon showing that more than 4,000 homes were destroyed by wildfires last year, to understand that these fires are no longer limited to uninhabited areas. .
There are a number of factors that contribute to these terrible fires.
Climate change is creating a deadly mix of dry fuels, prolonged drought, extreme winds and proliferating fire sources. When it comes to ignition elements, human negligence tops the list, accounting for over 80 percent of all forest fires.
Unfortunately, the prevalence of these fire-triggering ingredients, combined with the current lack of resources, will likely cause massive forest fires to become a regular occurrence.
Over 100 years ago, Albert Einstein noted, âWe cannot solve our problems with the same thinking we used when we created them. And it’s time to bring that mentality to the fight against forest fires.
This is not to overlook the passionate and dedicated people from multiple agencies who strive to avoid these cataclysmic fires in the first place and put themselves in danger to fend off them when prevention is lacking. However, there are three areas where a little thought outside the box could make a difference.
We need a more centralized command structure, better resources and a greater emphasis on air attacks to put out these raging forest flames.
Currently, several agencies may be involved in the management of a major fire. There appears to be agency alphabet soup involved.
We would be better served if we had a Fire Tsar – if that is the right term – to oversee tactical approaches and the flow of resources in a more coordinated and efficient manner.
A good friend – the late Dave Heerensperger, who started a successful hardware chain in the 1960s – used to preach, âThere is a difference between effort and results. For many reasons, when it comes to fighting forest fires, it seems that men and women are risking their souls without achieving satisfactory results.
I remember during World War II it took General Dwight Eisenhower to unite the many Allied forces together for the final victory in Europe. This kind of leadership is needed to effectively fight these fires.
Mark Thibibeau, an interagency fire communications specialist, noted, âObviously, early detection and having the right resources at the right time are the keys to successful extinguishing of these fires. He went on to say, “A mix of aviation assets and boots on the ground is what extinguishes fires.”
It seems that we are still running out of qualified and experienced boots in the field. So here’s an idea that may be right now – to train and certify members of the National Guard to become level one wildland firefighters.
There are over 400,000 members in the National Guard nationwide. Suppose 25 percent were trained in firefighting. That would give the US Forest Service 100,000 trained men and women available at all times.
Of course, there is a cost. But when you consider the cost we incur for the loss of property and life, it seems obvious.
Leadership needs to recognize the need for more boots on the ground and develop a plan and budget to put them in place. Much of the training is available online these days, and on-the-job training could be easily managed in weekend sessions.
Air resources are also scarce. We need more planes and crews to drop off enough water or retarder to overcome these insidious conflagrations.
Fortunately, the Air National Guard is already providing significant assistance. But more air resources are needed.
There is no doubt that this is a costly investment, so congressional officials must budget for the good of the land and the people. A shortcut might be to loot boneyards in the Arizona desert, where hundreds of planes of all sizes await new life.
Currently, several companies operate small fleets of tankers capable of dropping 3,000 to 12,000 gallons of water or retarder. What if there were 50 field planes of different sizes and configurations?
As with any battle, the requirements for fighting a forest fire are diverse. The reality is that specially configured planes are needed so that small fires can be put out before they turn into uncontrollable disasters.
Not only is there a need for airplanes, but also for trained pilots and support teams. Training is needed to transfer the experience and wisdom of current crews to those who come next.
We also need to develop more effective tactics involving better integration of air and land resources. There are private organizations that have started providing such resources, but more is needed.
As the late General Colin Powell once said, âThere is no secret to being successful. It is the result of preparation, hard work and learning from failure.
We have learned a lot from our failures. Now is the time for us to invest in the preparedness and hard work that this threat demands.