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This fire seemed like just a serious warning, but then…

Tue, Jul 10, 2012

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“The first angel sounded, and there followed hail and fire mingled with blood, and they were cast upon the earth: and the third part of trees was burnt up, and all green grass was burnt up.” — Revelation 8:7.

Last Sunday’s press conference at Coronado High School, backdropped by the surging Waldo Canyon fire, drew 10 TV trucks, dozens of print, radio and TV journalists, and at least eight elected officials. Some gave useful information (Springs Mayor Steve Bach, Manitou Mayor Marc Snyder), while others could have safely kept their mouths shut.

Still, the siren song of major TV face time is difficult to resist, especially in an election year. We heard from El Paso County Sheriff Terry Maketa, County Commissioners Amy Lathen and Sallie Clark, and Congressman Doug Lamborn. Colorado Springs city councilmember Val Snider and Commissioner Peggy Littleton were present, but didn’t speak.

The common theme: everyone’s working together. In keeping with this sudden togetherness, the usual infighting was nowhere in evidence. Even Congressman Lamborn, who rarely misses an opportunity to take a potshot at his political foes, was subdued and statesmanlike.

Mayor Bach, who led the parade of speakers, noted correctly that the day of reckoning had finally come. For decades, local officials have planned for the inevitable — the marriage between fire and forest.

Global climate change is, like it or not, the wedding planner for this ill-omened union.

Remember the dire predictions made years ago by climate scientists, who tried to persuade western policymakers that higher temperatures, less rainfall, and diminished winter snowpack would bring quasi-permanent drought, more frequent and intense forest fires, and other inevitable changes to the region?

Three scenarios were presented — best, median and worst case. We’re not at the worst-case scenario — we’re where the worst-case scenarios predicted we’d be in 2030. We’re in unexplored territory.

You may argue that this is an anomalous year. It’s weather, not climate, right? That’s a familiar argument among climate-change deniers.

It’s no longer credible. You might as well argue that the Titanic never sank — after all, everyone knew she was unsinkable, right?

Sallie Clark praised the cooperation between officials at all levels, pointing out that plans for such an emergency had been in place for many years. That’s true — and although the parade of politicians became tiresome, it was comforting.

But — and it’s a large but — Colorado and the other states of the Mountain west are still woefully unprepared to fight the vast fires that devour hundreds of thousands of acres of forest every year.

As a story in the New York Times documented last week, the available fleet of large tanker planes has shrunk by 80 percent in the last 10 years. In 2002, the Forest Service could count on 44 such planes, all leased from various contractors. Today, there are nine.

All of these planes are at least 40 years old, and have been converted to their present use by private owners. They’re neither safe nor particularly effective. Since 1999, 63 pilots and crewmembers of these aerial fossils have died.

So why, in an annual defense budget of more than $600 billion, isn’t there enough to buy a new tanker fleet? We can’t blame our politicians. The fault lies with us.

We thought that catastrophic fires happened somewhere else. We never quite believed that one could actually threaten us. We didn’t believe that everything west of Interstate 25 might be evacuated, that neighborhoods would be incinerated, that our city might be wreathed in swirling, acrid smoke, that God and good luck might not protect us.

We thought we had dodged the bullet this time — until Tuesday evening’s nightmare.

Our world is not ending, just changing in unpleasant ways. We may not be able to stop forest fires from igniting, but we can do a better job of containment.

Why not buy a hundred tanker planes to fight fires in the West? Bombardier, a Canadian company, makes one that sells for about $35 million, far beyond the means of Forest Service contractors. Do the math — such a fleet would cost $3.5 billion, or 6/10ths of 1 percent of the defense budget.

We can fight fire; it’s not an abstract concept like “terrorism.” A war on forest fires makes sense, but only if we actually wage it.

As Carl von Clausewitz pointed out 200 years ago in Principles of War, “Defensive warfare does not consist of waiting idly for things to happen.”

1 Comments For This Post

  1. Tom Wehrkamp Says:

    It is nice to be chicken little and blame global warming for the sudden surge of large wild fires; however, the reality is this season is no different than past severe fire seasons. The real problem is not weather so much as leadership and attitude toward fire suppression. The standard excuse is neglect of our forests over decades and aggressive fire suppression in the past has led to abundance of undergrowth which leads to massive fires. The fact is no leadership to suppress. This has been the problem with the Forest Service and National Park Service for sixty years. Look at all of the major fires and you will see the pattern. Examples are the Waldo Canyon Fire and High Plain Fires. Rather than commit sufficient resources to contain and destroy the fire early on the attitude was to monitor until a incident team was in place and aerial assets could be ordered and put in place. In the case of the waldo canyon the fire was in monitor state for three days and allowed to grow from a few acres to over 1100 acres before applying aerial assets. The size of the monitoring crew was only capable of handling a few acres. On the day it blew up there were no more than fifty fighters, no heavy equipment, one helicopter, and three bombers to drop slurry. A smoke column rising over 25000 feet indicated major problems and when the wind shifted….not much can be said. On the High Plain when the three man crew arrived on site it was at 30 acres. One Helo drop was made and they were going to monitor….result 90000 plus acres, 250 homes and who know what else. Again, had adequate resources been immediately applied none of the heartache would have occurred. In the 1960′s, when I was young, I worked as a forest fire fighter for the Department of Natural Resources, State of Washington, Forks District. The biggest threat to us was the USFS and USNPS. The State lands were surrounded by National Forest and National Park. Unlike the feds we responded to fires and fought them with everything we could muster. We Never Had a Major Burn. I cannot say the same for the fed lands. One thing the state did that the feds refused to do was log and harvest tracts of land; burn the remaining slash in the fall; seed and plant in winter and early spring. The forests were managed and on a planned thirty year harvest rotation. The National Forest harvested; left the mess; and let nature take its course. The National Forest rotation was a minimum of sixty years.
    I agree our forests are mishandled and non productive. I do not agree with the tree hugger attitude of managing the forests. I have all respect for the in the field fire fighters, but I have nothing but disdane for the management. I think it is past time to take our wild lands back, manage them properly, and rebuild what they have destroyed. If left to management we will not see these forests that have been lost in our childrens lifetime. Case in point go look at the Hayman burn and Yellowstone. Nothing but weeds, trash brush, and black lightning rods sticking in the air.