Toeing the Fire Line
Enviros and Forest Service forge new alliance in fire management.
Thursday, January 8, 2009
These are not people who have regular coffee dates. Yet on Dec. 19, when a group of Forest Service officials met with members of two wilderness advocacy groups, they found common ground in the fire lines snaking through the Ventana Wilderness.
Members of The Wilderness Society and Ventana Wilderness Alliance approached Los Padres National Forest managers to discuss a new direction in managing the catastrophic wildfires that rip through the region every few decades.
The groups propose maintaining strategic fire lines year-round and doing small controlled burns in the wet season. By prepping existing breaks around the wilderness, they aim to protect surrounding homes while reducing the number of additional lines cut in emergencies.
The agency’s status quo puts more money into reaction than prevention. Since 1935 the Forest Service has followed the “10am policy,” which requires the agency to attempt to control new wildfires by 10am the next day. Fire suppression in California reportedly cost more than $1.7 billion in 2008. It also punched countless fire lines into the wilderness, introducing noxious weeds and tempting ATV users.
A preventive approach would create high-wage jobs at a fraction of the cost of fighting wildfires, according to TWS Fire Program Associate Rich Fairbanks, who spent 32 years in the Forest Service. “Bulldozers do a lot of damage, and to repeatedly use them in a wild area in times of fire begs for a solution,” he says.
Monterey District Ranger John Bradford is supportive, but he says the Forest Service will need TWS’s help to sell it to the public. “Folks that have very strong wilderness ethics might not like this idea,” he says. “I was pleasantly surprised when they talked to me about it. This is stuff that we’ve tried to work on for years, and never gotten support.”
Both Fairbanks and Bradford emphasize that the talks are preliminary and non-specific. But so far, the concept of maintaining firebreaks around the wilderness seems surprisingly palatable to both camps, which historically have butted heads.
The difference this time, says Los Padres Fuels Officer Steve Davis, is that environmentalists are spearheading the proposal.
“There’s organized resistance to any proposals for 30 years, and then all of the sudden we see some of these groups come up and change their tune,” he says. “The devils are in the details, but I was hoping that we would see a more proactive rapport instead of always ‘us versus them.’”
Even the notoriously anti-government folks in Big Sur may be receptive. “The people of the Big Sur communities will embrace this,” says local organizer Jack Ellwanger of The Pelican Network. “Every time it’s been mentioned in a meeting with residents, it has been applauded.”
Philosophy is at the heart of the conflict, Ellwanger says. While some Big Sur residents view the wilderness “as this big lurking macabre giant that’s gonna come over the hill and burn their house,” environmental groups have historically argued that “you don’t go into the wilderness and use a chainsaw or a bulldozer, because there’s something sacred about it.”
Ellwanger hopes they’ll meet in the middle with a proactive management plan. “It will be a way of not only preparing for a fire, but also reducing the inevitability of fire,” he says.
The December meeting was only the first step in a process that may catch on– or fizzle out. Davis says he and Fairbanks are working on recommendations for the scoping document, due Jan. 15. With approval from both Bradford and Forest Supervisor Peggy Hernandez, it will inch toward the public process.