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Law Review: Fire shows need for better legislation

Jim Porter, Sierra Sun

The firefighters have conquered the Martis Peak fire. At press deadline, the containment is 75 percent and the cost is more than $12 million.

Watching a raging forest fire is frightening. From both my house and office I had a front row seat. The trees ignited into 200-foot fireballs as if they were dead. Their moisture content must be minuscule.

Watching the firefighting arsenal was equally remarkable. The California, Nevada and federal teams merged into an efficient machine. The Cessna 206 spotter plane was on the scene almost immediately as were Truckee Fire and CDF crews. The Douglas DC-4 pilots were the most impressive of all as they dive-bombed the fire.

The most spectacular sight, however, was the blackened hillsides the first night after being scorched. Thousands of campfire-sized embers were lit up like bright stars, merging into the night sky.

The big concern now is the erosion potential and the affect the fire will have on Floriston and the Truckee River when it rains. The soil rehabilitation crews have probably already begun their work.

The Herculean effort of the pilots, the hand crews, the dozer drivers, the water tenders, the strategists – all of them – is nothing less than heroic. I can see how fighting fires can be addictive. I could feel the adrenaline rush from my safe vantage point.

There is one matter that makes little sense concerning firefighting in wilderness areas. It has nothing to do with the men and women who fought the fire. A portion of this fire was in the federal Mount Rose Wilderness Area. The Wilderness Act, created in the 1960s, protects large tracts of land in their natural state. No vehicles are allowed, no combustible engines, generally only horses, backpackers and hikers. I have always been a supporter of The Wilderness Act.

What I have a problem with is the unintended consequences (my favorite term) on firefighting efforts by The Wilderness Act. In wilderness areas, helicopters can’t fly over, chain saws aren’t allowed. Vehicles, bulldozers and roads are prohibited. Although the forest supervisor apparently approved the use of chain saws for the Martis fire, no vehicles and no dozers were allowed into the Wilderness area, which is standard procedure for Wilderness area fires. Last summer the Montana fires in Wilderness areas were allowed to burn. Any Wilderness fire behind Squaw Valley will not be fought with planes, helicopters or vehicles. The thinking being, let’s keep the (albeit once clear cut) natural Wilderness natural. Bulldozers and roads scar the pristine environment.

Well, fires can be worse. They destroy everything, including the wildlife, and in the Sierra nothing much grows back except non-native cheat grass which has virtually no nutritional value. The Martis fire area will be denuded forever, and if additional acres were burned and animals killed because of the no roads/no dozers Wilderness policy, that’s outrageous. If more silt washed into the Truckee River because of the well-intended Wilderness Act prohibitions, that’s wrong.

If a citizen throws a bucket of soil in the Truckee River he or she will be arrested. If in protecting the environment rivers clog from run-off because firefighters are battling blazes with one hand tied behind their back, then we have missed the mark.

When my house is on fire I welcome the firemen even if their water suppressant techniques may damage my home. At least I may still have a home.

To be clear, my complaint is with Congress and the policymakers (and purist Wilderness Act supporters) who refuse to modify the rules to allow firefighters to do their job.

I admit my knowledge of this area is limited but where’s the common sense in letting our precious Wilderness areas burn, especially in the Sierra where trees may never grow back – all in the name of saving the environment?

Here’s to all the firemen and women who risked their lives on the Martis fire. Thank you and godspeed.

Jim Porter is an attorney with Porter/Simon, with offices in Truckee and Reno. He may be reached at porter@portersimon.com or at the firm’s Web site http://www.portersimon.com


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