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Excerpt from Strangely Like War

Forest Fires (p. 65)

From chapter "A Rigged System"

Fires are a forest’s way of renewing itself. In arid forests, fire, and not bacteria or fungi, is the main agent for breaking down nutrients. Without fire, dead litter in these forests does not decay or rot, but simply piles up on the forest floor. Fires also redistribute these nutrients across space—in the form of windborn ash—much as salmon carry nutrients from ocean to forest. Fires mix things up: they’re a tremendously creative force.

And for the most part fires aren’t all that dangerous. I know we’ve been raised on stories of sad Smokey the Bear clinging to a tree, his mother obviously murdered by the raging fires. He was saved (and put in prison) by kind humans in green polyester pants. But who told us these stories? Those kind humans in green polyester pants themselves, the members of the Forest Service.

Would they lie to us?

Well, yes.

Most natural fires are pretty small—most are far less than 100 acres, and even including larger fires the average is only about 240 acres—and they don’t burn quickly or all that hot. They don’t jump to the tops of big trees, but kill only their smaller cousins beneath. And there are a lot of these small fires: the Blue Mountains of Oregon got their name from the smoky haze of so many small wildfires. In their natural cycle most western forests burned every three to twenty years, with longer cycles in more moist forests. This means big trees in dry forests would experience perhaps fifty or a hundred fires in their lives.

These small fires aren’t all that dangerous. Because they burn in patches, animals easily move to protected swales till the fire passes (or they climb trees and wait for mother to return, and hope she gets there before the bastards in the green polyester pants). The front usually advances at only a couple of miles per hour, meaning large mammals can easily amble in front of the flames, and birds can fly away. Isn’t it cool, by the way, how most birds generally raise young early in the year, which means fledglings are ready to fly before fire season? Even small creatures are fairly safe from fires: mammals head into their burrows, and insects just dig themselves into the soil, where a few inches below the surface the temperature remains remarkably constant.

The nature and danger of forest fires changed with the arrival of extractive forestry. Peshtigo, Wisconsin, October 8, 1871: only twenty years earlier the area had been part of a 200,000 square mile unbroken native forest that covered much of Wisconsin, Michigan, and Minnesota. But the trees were cut, for lumber, for railroad ties, to clear land for agriculture. Fires escaped from logging slash piles and exploded into the logged-over forests, burning 1.25 million acres of pine trees, and killing 1500 people. Hinkley, Minnesota, 1894. Metz, Michigan, 1908. Cloquet, Minnesota, 1918. These huge fires raged in the aftermath and as a result of extractive forestry.

As extractive forestry moved west, so did catastrophic fires. The Yacoult Fire of 1902 (actually a series of one hundred and ten fires), started by logger and settler fires, burned a million acres in Washington and Oregon and killed thirty people. Then came the Wallace Fire of 1910 in Idaho, sometimes called The Big Blow-Up. As usual, logging created conditions ripe for catastrophic fire—lots of slash piles, lots of trees killed by logging, lots of weak “dog-hair” trees coming up in dense even-age stands. By July of that year three thousand fires—many started in slash piles—were burning in the forests of North Idaho. On August 20, “all hell broke loose,” according to the District Forester: hot hurricane force winds blew up from the southwest. They were strong enough to blow horseriders from their saddles, and strong enough to bring together the small fires into a conflagration that took out three million acres of white pine. Headlines from the region: “Wallace Fire Loss $1,000,000: 50 Dead—180 Missing in St. Joe Zone”; “Five Known Dead Near Newport”; “Terror-Stricken, 2000 Refugees Dash Through Flames to Safety”; “In Forest Fires 142 Dead, 185 Missing, Property Loss is $20,000,000”; “Fire Victims Number 185.”

In response to the destruction caused by these logging-induced forest fires, the federal government decided to head right to the root of the problem and halt all industrial forestry, right? Well, no, not exactly. Instead administrators decided to eradicate not the disease but the symptom, and assumed what was called a “10 am fire policy,” that is, that every fire must be out by ten o’clock the next morning. Inmate Smokey was conscripted into serving the propaganda effort on the part of the Forest Service to sell this policy to the people of the United States.

The net effect of this policy has been a further weakening of already stressed forests, as well as a dangerous buildup of those even-age stands so beloved of both foresters and fires. In other words, industrial forestry has combined with a misguided fire suppression policy to create conditions ripe for conflagration.

The federal government has, unsurprisingly, used this fear of conflagration to promote deforestation by greatly increasing logging and by suspending environmental laws and public participation on all timber sales determined to be necessary to “reduce fuel load.” The Forest Service and the Bureau of Land Management have already put their old rubber stamps bearing “Necessary for Forest Health” into storage and replaced them with stamps bearing “Necessary to Reduce Fuel Load.”

Expect another massacre. It doesn’t really matter to the outcome that time after time the trees that are cut are the big old commercially valuable trees, not the dog-hair trees that are more prone to fire: a 1999 Government Accounting Office report stated that Forest Service managers “tend to (1) focus on areas with high-value commercial timber rather than on areas with high fire hazards or (2) include more large, commercially valuable trees in a timber sale than are necessary to reduce the accumulated fuels.” Nor does it matter that a September 2000 report by the Department of the Interior and the Department of Agriculture stated, “The removal of large, merchantable trees from forests does not reduce fire risk and may, in fact, increase such risk.” Nor does it matter that Forest Service fire specialist Denny Truesdale says, “The majority of the material that we need to take out is not commercial timber. It is up to three and four inches in diameter. We can’t sell it.”

Science doesn’t matter. Logic doesn’t matter. Public participation and democracy don’t matter. Justice doesn’t matter. Forests don’t matter. Life doesn’t matter.