by Timothy Ingalsbee, Ph.D.
Director, Western Fire Ecology Center
[Published in “Wildfire!: an endangered ecosystem process.” Vol. 1,
Cascadia Fire Ecology Education Project, 1994.]
FOR NEARLY A CENTURY THE FOREST SERVICE HAS BEEN WAGING WAR ON THE WILD . Nowhere is the war metaphor more applicable than in describing the agency’s methods of “fighting” forest fires. In its mission to search and destroy all forest fires, the agency commands a vast army of firefighters, backed up by an armada of vehicles and an arsenal of tools and equipment. The agency has built up the world’s largest, most technologically-advanced, most expensive firefighting organization in the world, waging a never-ending war on wildfire.
AFTER FIFTY YEARS OF SMOKEY BEAR PROPAGANDA, it seems almost instinctual that we humans should fight forest fires. The media reinforces our subconscious fears of fire, for they always villify wildfires as disasters and catastrophes, an evil enemy which kills trees and destroys forests. On the other hand, the media valorizes firefighters as tough, brave, patriotic heroes defending the Nation’s forests by “battling” blazes and “fighting” fires.
THE MEDIA LOVES A GOOD WAR, and buys into the agency’s militarization of fire management. The whole Western Enlightenment Conquest of Nature paradigm is played out to the fullest; meanwhile, the institutional and ideological causes of the conflict–the greed, arrogance, and power-hunger of Forest Service managers and their corporate clientele–are obscurred. But as the 1994 fire season enters the record books as the most deadly and destructive season in memory, we should ask ourselves, what does it mean to be eternally at war with Nature?
THE FOREST SERVICE HAS BIG STAKES IN THE PERPETUATION OF THE WAR. The agency reaps significant political and financial rewards from fighting forest fires. Forest managers tap into a huge emergency firefighting fund in Washington D.C., and have almost unlimited access to the public’s money to “put out” a fire. Subsequent salvage logging sales are additional losses to the people’s economic and ecological treasury: private timber companies can buy scorched trees at “fire sale” prices, and the individual National Forest can keep all the timber receipts. Firefighting costs are thus not expenditures, but investments that offer big revenues to government and business.
FIREFIGHTING HAS BECOME A BIG BUSINESS, AND BUSINESS IS BOOMING. Nearly $1 million (tax dollars) a day are spent on the average large fire. Now, private entrepeneurs and corporations want a bigger piece of this racket. A growing “fire-dependent” business clientele has emerged, from contract firefighting crews to local merchants and official government suppliers, all reaping windfall profits on the taxpayers’ till. The Forest Service will not stop fighting fire because there are too many war profiteers with interests at stake–and too many bored bureaucrats getting their thrills playing with unlimited budgets while assuming a military mode of authority. A new face of the Corporate State’s military-industrial complex has developed around the Forest Service and its war on wildfire. And like all other war-related enterprises, the taxpayers make hardly a fuss about how the government spends their money.
I AM A VETERAN AND SURVIVOR OF THIS WAR. I began fighting fires 15 years ago as an eager and idealistic footsoldier, for it was more than a job–it was an adventure! In North Cascades National Park, I have cut fireline in ground so high that I could stare into the blue crevasses of glaciers plunging from the ridgeline across the valley. In the River of No Return Wilderness, I have cut fireline in ground so deep down the steep Salmon River Canyon that the smoke-filled sky blazed crimson red for hours after dawn, until the sun topped the ridge. In the North Kalmiopsis Roadless Area, I was paid to hike and camp in places few two-leggeds (other than Sasquatch) rarely see. I have been blessed with these and many more adventures, and witnessed some awesome displays of Nature’s power when a forest is afire.
I LOVED THE INCOME OF FIREFIGHTING, TOO. It felt like good pay for good, hard work. The pride I felt about my job was like that of a professional soldier for the Earth, an “eco-defender,” if you will. Most of my fellow firefighters, however, had the mentality of mercenaries, and were willing to do almost anything to get those fat paychecks. Even I was not immune to the “gold fever” that afflicts firefighters. “There’s green where there’s black,” we used to say to ourselves, thinking deliriously about our future paychecks while toiling away in working conditions that violate EPA and OSHA rules for every other industrial occupation. It is scary for me to realize how well the wage-slavery system of delayed gratification sustained me through many hellish assignments.
IN THE MIDST OF FULFILLING MY ECO-DEFENDER FANTASIES, I adopted much of the militarist mentality that pervades firefighting. Firefighting operations are organized under an extremely hierarchical, military-style chain of command. I have seen weak, incompetent, uncharismatic technocrats who rarely get out of the office, swell up with the arrogance of military generals when they assumed a position of power on the pecking order of fire bosses. They often forced firefighters–most of whom were a lot stronger and smarter but of a lower bureaucratic rank–to do all kinds of stupid, futile tasks for no other reason than the sheer delight of exercising their power.
IF YOU ARE A GRUNT, YOUR JOB IS TO FOLLOW ORDERS, PERIOD. You dig a line, stand in line, hurry up and wait, or work your ass off according to the orders of your superiors. Your crewboss and foreman tell you when and where to eat, sleep, and shit. I tended to follow my orders with gusto and few gripes, and earned superior evaluations (but no medals) for my combat service. It is scary for me to look back now and see how years of playing with G.I. Joe dolls, and psychological training in school athletics, conditioned me with the ability to ignore my own anarchist instincts, pacifist principles, and anti-imperialist politics, and willingly enlist as a grunt in Uncle Sam’s firefighting army. Now I deeply regret doing the many aweful damn-stupid, dangerous, and destructive things that go on in firefighting.
OF THE MANY “WAR CRIMES” I AM ASHAMED TO HAVE PARTICIPATED IN, one stands out: the deliberate torching of scenic Sherman Pass on the Colville National Forest. Working on the White Mountain Complex Fire in 1988, we were ordered by a Type II (“second stringer”) Incident Commander to set a huge backfire along Highway 20. Although those of us on the ground knew that the conditions were not right that night, we “just followed orders” and lit the woods anyway. The fire jumped the highway and surged into pristine, unburned old-growth forest.
WE SPENT A DESPERATE, TERROR-FILLED NIGHT TRYING TO CHASE DOWN THE FIRESTORM WE HAD CREATED. The next morning, the scene of devastation along the roadway was astounding. Hundreds of burnt trees had fallen across the road, and the intense heat of the blaze had destroyed the guardrail, leaving the metal twisted and blackened. The highway was closed for more than a week as trees continued to fall. The agency’s top fire bosses were forced to take over command of the firefighting operations in order to pacify an outraged local populace. The White Mountain Complex was renamed the Sherman Fire, not only because a brand new human-caused wildfire had been created at the top of Sherman Pass, but also, perhaps, because it appeared that we were using the same “Civil” War tactics as Sherman’s March to the Sea. The Forest Service later completed the destruction of this place by salvage logging this and other places where we had set backburns. Now, large black stumps line Highway 20’s new “ob-scenic” corridor.
THOUGH WE ARE CALLED “FIRE” FIGHTERS, RARELY DO WE EVER DIRECTLY ATTACK FLAMES. Instead, we normally do “indirect attack” on the “fuels” (forest vegetation and soil), and ironically, fire is our prime tool. We cut and burn trees along every foot of fireline, and aim for 100% consumption of the understory vegetation. In fact, a significant portion of the burned acreage on every forest fire comes directly from the hands of firefighters. We essentially fight fire with fire, and cheerily chant the “mopshot” mantra, “First we light ’em, then we fight ’em,” as we put our torches to the greenery. It has gotten to the point that we should be renamed “fire-lighters,” because that is what we are doing, firelighting not firefighting.
I HAVE COME TO SUSPECT THAT TIMBER BEASTS WORKING AS FIRE BOSSES are using firefighters to chart out new logging sites under the smokescreen of wildfire emergencies. Some of the huge backfires and aggressive burnouts we set–far away from the main fire, and far in excess of safety or suppression needs–also created large, profitable salvage logging units. As a matter of policy, every fire in the agency’s designated “general forest” zone is salvage logged–and the bigger the fire, the bigger the salvage sale! It has saddened and angered me to learn how many wild places me and my crewmembers worked our butts off to save–like the North Kalmiopsis Roadless Area, like Yellowstone National Park!–were salvage logged. The public should quickly dispel themselves of the myth that firefighting saves trees–they are “saved” only for the salvage saws. Perhaps we should ask the agency why it needs to spend millions of tax dollars “fighting” forest fires if it intends to log off the trees anyway.
THE TRUTH IS WE DON’T FIGHT FIRES, WE FIGHT THE FOREST. For all the abuse we do to the trees–before, during, and after a wildfire–perhaps we should be called “fir-fighters.” In fact, we fell many trees cutting fireline. First we cut the young ones to make our fuelbreaks, then after burning out the fireline, we cut the old ones. After line cutting is completed, the tree cutting continues during “mop-up.” This is the period where firefighters confront only smoldering embers and hotspots after a flame front has passed through. Some of the most valuable wildlife trees in the forest–the giant Douglas-fir broken-tops and snags, hollowed with the former homes of bats, squirrels, and owls–are usually ignited from our backburns and burnouts. For the sake of “safety” and suppression, these giant trees are systematically dropped to the ground by bored firefighters doing the bidding of their bosses. We fir-fighters (sic) on the firelines are thus on the frontlines of forest destruction, truly “eco-warriors” in a war against the forest…And the war goes on, from battle to battle, without end.
THE TRAGIC DEATHS OF THE FIREFIGHTERS ON STORM KING MOUNTAIN in Colorado has shocked the nation into awareness that the war on wildfire is not without its human casualties. As in every war, it is always the young who are sent to fight and die. This tragedy has severely shaken the normal arrogance and insularity of Forest Service fire generals, for the women and men who died on the mountain came from the most elite kinds of fire crews the agency commands. The Forest Service has been scrambling to reassure the public that its firefighting strategies and tactics are safe and sound. To that end, the agency cynically blamed the victims for their own deaths, claiming that the firefighters’ own “can do” attitudes made them take unnecessary risks in the face of known hazards. This belies the fact that the “can do” attitude originates at the top echelons of the agency, and is handed down the chain of command. This winter the Forest Service’s elite managers will evaluate firefighting policies and procedures. Do not be surprised if the massive new salvage and thinning projects coming ahead are presented as “fire protection” plans to facilitate “firefighter safety” as well as “forest health.” Do not be shocked if the agency shamelessly uses the tragedy to scare the public into supporting its aggressive new logging proposals.
AS THE CORPORATE STATE’S WAR MACHINE CONTINUES TO SPIN on a treadmill of its own making, the power-mongering and profiteering that feed this unnecessary and unwinnable war are never addressed. It is time that the American People end the government’s war against wildfire. Fire suppression and salvage are ravaging and pillaging the forest. There are alternative, “light-hand” or minimal-impact techniques for suppressing fires’ severity that does not sacrifice the trees. We must reject the State’s militarization of fire management, its warlike campaign to “fight” fires, and its scorched Earth tactics of firefighting. We must make peace with the planet, relearn to live with the Wild, and stop the eco-war. Now!