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Let It Burn 

The battle between firefighting and fire guiding

Wednesday, Sep 20 2006
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Ever since the Big Blowup of 1910 ripped through the wilderness of western Montana and northern Idaho — incinerating 3 million acres of forest in 48 hours, killing 57 people and endangering the political future of then-President William Howard Taft — foresters and the media that quote them have talked about fires the way generals talk about war. Firefighters battle blazes on their frontlines and, as they contain them, mop up their smoldering remnants. But last week, when fire expert Richard Minnich was watching the nightly news, he began to suspect that the rhetoric was shifting: “I heard this weather guy, Josh Rubenstein, talking about the fire up in the Los Padres Forest [known as the Day Fire because it started on Labor Day]. He showed some insight that I rarely see in the media. He said, ‘It’s better that it got burned off in the weather we’ve got right now instead of waiting for the Santa Anas to come along over the weekend.’ He actually suggested that the forest might need to burn.”

Minnich is a professor and fire-ecology specialist at UC Riverside who sometimes irritates the U.S. Forest Service with his theories about fuels and fire management, which he documents with photographs of those fuels and the aftermath of the fires to prove he’s right. He has long been critical of forest-fire suppression in the San Bernardino Mountains, where billions have been spent tamping down conflagrations that would have nurtured a healthy forest. Watching the news that night, however, Minnich thought maybe the Forest Service was treating the Day Fire the way he might if he were in charge.

“My suspicion is that they’re fighting it hard on the I-5, but letting it [burn] all it can in the wild parts. They might actually be doing the right thing.”

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The fire had been burning in the Sespe Wilderness, which Minnich describes as “totally empty country. If I were running that show, I’d let it go as long as possible.”

It turned out that Minnich, for that day at least, was on target. In recent years, fire management has begun to move away from its military metaphors and cooperate better with nature. “We’ve developed what we called our MIST tactics — that stands for Minimum Impact Suppression Tactics,” says the U.S. Forest Service’s Jim Turner, a forest planner who becomes a fire-information officer when things burn. “Part and parcel of [MIST] is making absolutely sure that we have resource advisers out there to make sure we don’t disturb sensitive habitat — that we stay out of riparian areas where we can, and avoid suppression tactics that aren’t ecologically sound.”

It also means giving some blazes free rein. Five years ago, when a fire ignited along Highway 166 near Santa Maria on the north side of the forest, the people responsible for managing the fire recognized that it was spreading into grasslands badly in need of a good burn.

“We knew nothing was going to be threatened by it,” Turner says. “So we actually stood back and let the sucker go.”

In the Sespe, Turner says that fire crews had no choice but to take MIST to its radical extreme: “It was too rugged out there, so we could only slow it down with aerial drops of retardant. It’s pretty much naturally doing its thing.”

“It’s been a 100-years war on wildlands,” says Timothy Ingalsbee of the Western Ecology Fire Center in Eugene, Oregon. “Firefighters beat on the ground and cut down trees and use chemical weapons. We need for it to be over.” He suggests that the news media lead the way by assigning a new name to the people managing the blazes — “firefighters” doesn’t fit the new approach.

“We used to call them smoke chasers,” he offered. “So now, how about ‘fire guiders’?

Turner recognizes the ecological benefits of the strategy — the high-chaparral landscape of the Sespe has evolved with fire and needs extreme heat to thrive — but it’s also clear that he’s uneasy with the strategy.

“The fire guys don’t like it,” he points out. “If the fire builds up a head of steam and starts going gangbusters, it could get close to an urbanized area where it’s hard to stop. And in just about any point in the Los Padres Forest, in one burning period you could be hitting an urbanized area.

“When we have a wildfire go over the hill and destroy structures, you can believe we come under a lot of scrutiny and pressure. It’s always a trade-off.”

Over the weekend, few were talking about letting the Day Fire burn when, fanned by Santa Ana winds from the east, it changed direction and blew up on its west side. On Thursday, the Day Fire had burned through a little more than 30,000 acres, and a cool marine fog had spread over the mountains, allowing firefighters to nearly contain the flames along the I-5. The trickiest challenge fire managers faced that day was lighting brush-clearing backfires in the damp air; the sky above the city of Fillmore, on the forest’s southern border, was clear. But by Sunday, a huge, anvil-shaped cloud had risen over the mountains, and the air in Fillmore tasted of soot.

By Monday, almost 80,000 acres had burned and tactics in the wilderness had changed dramatically: “We’ve just dumped hundreds of firefighters in this area up here,” said Wayne Wynick on Sunday, pointing to the mountains above the Fillmore fire station. A local resident, Mike Horn, drove up to ask about the fate of some historic cabins near the fire line, wondering whether they could be protected with “slurry,” the pinkish fertilizer-and-dye combination used to retard flames. Wynick let him know that the force and weight of the slurry drop would probably flatten the cabins.

Wynick, a Pennsylvania forester who’d come to Southern California to help disseminate information to the press and public, typically watches over a 2.1-million-acre “Green Certified” forest where the average blaze scorches one and a half acres. (“I know it’s a big one when I have to send out for a second order of hoagies for the crew,” he told me.) But he made it clear that conditions in Southern California required a much different way of thinking. “Helicopters made 22 flights in there supporting rappellers,” he says. “We dropped people on ropes so they could cut out helipads in the vegetation. It was the only practical way to get in there.”

This was war.?

Reach the writer at judith.lewis@laweekly.com

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