Forest Service must change burn policy to avoid accidental disaster
The recent fire in Orange County burned with an intensity not seen in February. Temperatures were in the 80 degree range, Santa Ana winds prompted red-flag fire warnings, which are normal for spring summer and fall conditions.
All this brings the knowledge that weather change is upon us. Regardless of the cause we need to be aware that dangerous fire conditions exist and it seems wildfire can burn structures and property even in the winter.
One fact that is not made public though is the cause of the recent fire. The U.S. Forest was doing controlled burning that once again escaped the established fire lines. For many years the Forest Service has done controlled burning to help reduce the intensity of wildfire. This is a good practice, which in theory helps all of us. It burns underbrush and other ladder fuels that bring fire into the trees, provides a firebreak to stop advancing flames and promotes new growth.
I commend the efforts of the Forest Service and any agency that conducts this vital function to help protect property and natural resources. The problem comes with Forest Service policy.
For many years they have had fire escape these so-called controlled burns, which have resulted in many homes burned to the ground and millions of dollars in taxpayer money being spent on suppression, not to mention firefighter injuries and the destruction of watershed and natural resources.
The U.S. Forest Service has a light and leave policy that allows them to ignite these controlled fires and then leave them unattended overnight or understaffed to burn at will. These fires then escape their established perimeter and can cause major damage. Sometimes they patrol these fires but leave no resources on scene to stop a potential conflagration such as the Orange County incident.
Here in the Lake Tahoe Basin the Forest Service follows the same practice. As a retired fire captain I have first-hand experience putting out unattended, escaped Forest Service fires. Fortunately, we have not burned structures and major acreage thanks to the local fire departments that are vigilant and stop these fires before they can do what we all fear here in the Tahoe Basin.
The Forest Service needs to realize that fire does not work from 8 a.m. to 5 p.m. They need to be responsible with fire and follow Smokey the Bear’s advice, “Only you can prevent forest fires.” If the Forest Service is allowed to continue this practice it is just a matter of time before we lose structures and acreage in the Tahoe Basin.
The Lake Tahoe Basin Management Unit and the Toiyabe Ranger Unit need to stop this irresponsible practice. If it takes five engines and hand crews to light these fires then it takes five engines and hand crews to manage these burns until they are put out ” dead out. Twenty-four hours a day, seven days a week.
The local fire agencies are here to protect us and do a wonderful job, but they don’t need the added danger Forest Service policy presents. In the recent past I know of escaped burns in both North and South Lake Tahoe started by the Forest Service and controlled by the local fire departments. If the Forest Service can’t staff the controlled burn until it is out, don’t light it. The land will not recover for decades. Personal property and loss of life are not measurable.
Randy Williams is retired North Tahoe Fire District fire captain.
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