by Timothy Ingalsbee, Ph.D.

Director, Western Fire Ecology Center

[Published in “Wildfire!: an endangered ecosystem process.” Vol. 2,

Cascadia Fire Ecology Education Project, 1997.]

Every summer the U.S. government makes war on America’s wildlands. Under the command of land management agencies such as the Forest Service, tens of thousands of young people are sent into the forests and rangelands of the West to fight wildfires. Unlike other military adventures, however, there are few voices of dissent emanating from peace activists, religious leaders, concerned taxpayers, frightened parents. Indeed, firefighting enjoys widespread popularity with the public; yet, in this modern crusade to conquer one of the most powerful forces of Nature, society has embarked on a war it cannot hope to win. Indeed, each battle offers only a temporary victory over an “enemy” which returns year and year with ever more power and fury.

Fomenting this futile battle are powerful political and economic interests with vested stakes in the perpetuation of warfare. A new “fire-dependent” class of government bureaucrats and private corporations accumulate enormous power and profits from firefighting. Accordingly, the Forest Service is filling an important new niche in the post-cold war Military-Industrial Complex. Surplus military equipment and superfluous military personnel are increasingly being dispatched to wildfires, all at the taxpayer’s till. Fully supporting the firefighting warlords and profiteers is a corporate press feeds the public a steady diet of “pyrophobic” propaganda to instill fear and hatred of forest fires.

Firefighting and fire salvage logging represent a militarization of forest management that portends dangerous consequences for both native ecosystems and democratic society. The “collatoral damage” inflicted upon ecosystems in the wake of firefighting and fire salvage logging operations is truly astounding (see article on “Casualities of War/Collatoral Damage”). Indeed, the same “logic” that defined the American War in Vietnam aptly describes America’s war on wildfire: we have to destroy it to save it. “It,” of course, does not refer to wildfire but to the forest itself. Cascadia’s native forests evolved with wildfire, and are fully adapted to if not dependent upon recurring fires for their natural forest health. Without question, firefighting and fire salvage logging present clear and present dangers to the vitality and diversity of native forests.

The war on wildfire has equally dangerous consequences for democratic society. Citizens were justifiably outraged by the infamous Salvage Rider which suspended the nation’s environmental laws to get the cut out. The lawless logging of the Salvage Rider has ended (for now), but these same abuses of environmental laws and democratic process continue with lawless firefighting under the de facto “Suppression Rider.” Each and every single firefighting incident is officially declared a “state of emergency;” accordingly, the nation’s environmental laws such as NEPA, NFMA, ESA, Clean Water and Clean Air Acts are suspended for the duration of the wildfire. In this situation, the forest is utterly at the mercy of agency managers unencumbered by the normal messiness of complying with federal laws, agency regulations, or public accountability.

Citing reasons of “public safety,” a de facto regime of martial law is established with sweeping federal closures that sometimes include forced evacuations of local residents. Armed federal agents, at times even supplemented with actual military personnel, enforce the closures to ensure that members of the public or the press do not infiltrate into fire camps or combat zones. Much as occurred on the Grenada invasion and the Gulf War, reporters are herded around fires in official press pools. With few exceptions most reporters do not venture very far from fire camp, choosing to stick close to the mess tent where Forest Service incident commanders can usually be found. In this militarized situation of highly restricted access and tightly controlled information, the public is utterly dependent on the government’s version of events. Rarely, almost never, does information leak out to the public that documents some of the environmental “war crimes” that are routine occurrences on wildfires.

Citizens decried the minimal environmental analyses and flawed public process that occurred during the Salvage Rider, but under the ongoing Suppression Rider, there is no environmental analysis or public process whatsoever! Land managers do not need to conduct an EA or EIS for the inevitable environmental impacts caused by firefighting. The public does not have a voice in fire suppression planning. There is no “range of alternatives” (including No Action) presented to firefighters. Firefighting plans are drafted in secret by incident commanders who hand it down the military-style chain of command to the crews who must carry out their orders without question. Funded by a near-unlimited source federal dollars at their disposal, Forest Service firefighting generals are truly all-powerful technocrats in this system of management by decree.

In principle and practice, then, firefighting represents a militarization of forest management that threatens both native ecosystems and democratic society. The damage to ecology and democracy does not end when the fire is out, however. The Forest Service allegedly “recovers” burned stands by “salvaging” the commercially valuable timber in order to “protect” the forest from future fires. Again, it must destroy it to save it. This was precisely the rationale the agency used in its attempt to salvage log the arson-burned roadless wildlife reserve in Warner Creek. Thus, before, during and after a wildfire incident, opportunistic land management agencies and private logging and firefighting companies are stoking the public’s conditioned fear of forest fires in order to assault some of America’s most precious, sensitive wildlands.

Formerly perceived as the forester’s worst foe, wildfire has now been reconceived as the Forest Service’s best friend. Fire allows the agency access to lands, money, and power inconceivable in any other circumstance short of an outright fascist state. There is no final victory in sight, nor will there be, for the war on wildfire has proven to be much too lucrative to the agency and its corporate clientele to consider some kind of peaceful resolution. Thus, the war will go on wracking up untold environmental, social, political, and economic costs until an informed citizenry forces the government to end its warmongering.

It is entirely up to the American people to end the war on wildfire. For the sake of ecology and democracy, we must all do whatever we can to stop this military madness. Cascadia’s native and ancient forests contain floral and faunal populations and ecological processes which are naturally adapted to, if not vitally dependent on, recurring fires. A new peaceful coexistence with wildfires must be established, based on a renewed respect for the wildness of Nature. Toward that vision, may a coalition of environmental and peace activists be soon formed to extinguish this militarization of our forests and culture, and make peace on Earth include peace with the planet. As Smokey Bear would have said if he were wild and free: “only YOU can prevent firefighting!”