Wildfires Rage across the West!

Published August 1, 2002

Wildfires are raging across several Western states this summer, quickly rendering 2000’s Year of the Wildfire a mere prelude to this year’s more widespread and more destructive blazes.

A common theme, however, connects the wildfire seasons of 2002, 2000, and many other recent years: the federal government’s role in setting the table and actually lighting the match for the catastrophic fires.

Colorado up in smoke

In Colorado, a monster fire spent much of June scorching hundreds of homes, forcing the evacuation of thousands of citizens, and threatening the state capitol and its suburbs. More than 2,000 firefighters were called up to battle the blaze, which ultimately torched more than 130,000 acres. Authorities called the blaze the worst in Colorado history. And with each house consumed by the flames, with each family forced to evacuate and find shelter elsewhere, a family saw its hopes, dreams, and worldly possessions go up in smoke.

As terrible as the fire itself was, more striking still were the facts leading up to the blaze, the federal government’s role in facilitating the blaze, and a federal employee’s actions in deliberately perpetrating the arson that led to the fire.

Federal firefighter Terry Barton initially reported the fire, claiming she discovered an abandoned campfire after smelling smoke on one of her patrols. She told her supervisors she threw dirt on the fire and thought she had extinguished it before it burst out of control.

Investigators found several inconsistencies in Barton’s account, however, and confronted her with evidence her story was a concoction. She broke down and “admitted” she had accidentally set the fire by burning a letter from her estranged husband. When that story, too, was disproven by investigators, Barton admitted deliberately setting the fire.

“I’m shocked and with a lot of other people, in a state of disbelief,” said regional forester Rick Cables of the U.S. Forest Service, Rocky Mountain Region. “I’m saddened to say that one of our employees has admitted to starting the … fire.”

While Cables expressed sadness that one of his coworkers had deliberately set the fire, it should not have come as a surprise. Barton’s actions fit a disturbing pattern in recent years of government workers deliberately setting fires on lands removed from private ownership and “entrusted” to the government.

Federal firefighter starts Arizona blaze

Another such fire, in fact, was set in Arizona and began raging out of control the very day the media reported the discrepancies in Barton’s claim that she had inadvertently ignited the Colorado fire with her husband’s letter.

On June 30, a contract firefighter for the federal Bureau of Indian Affairs was charged with deliberately starting a fire outside the Fort Apache Indian Reservation. That blaze erupted into the largest wildfire in Arizona history.

Leonard Gregg admitted starting the fire, as well as another one that was quickly extinguished, in order to gain work. Gregg worked as a contract firefighter for the federal government, and he was paid according to how often he was called to fight fires.

“I’m sorry for what I did,” Gregg said in federal court, before a magistrate judge told him to refrain from making any statements of guilt.

The Arizona fire torched 452,000 acres of forest in eastern Arizona, destroyed more than 400 homes, and forced the evacuation of more than 30,000 people.

Colorado, Arizona, not alone

Even as the Colorado and Arizona fires caught the national media’s attention, numerous other large-scale fires burned across the West. In South Dakota, thousands of people fled the gambling town of Deadwood to escape an untamed wildfire. In North Dakota, several fires went unchecked, including one that burned 20,000 acres and 30 buildings in Shields. In Alaska, a fire started by government biologists torched 100,000 acres and came perilously close to igniting the town of McGrath. In northern New Mexico, a fire incinerated 92,000 acres.

This summer’s fires are part of an ominous trend toward increasingly dangerous Western wildfires: fires that are less easily contained, burn for longer periods of time, and are far more destructive than their pre-1990s’ predecessors. The summer of 2000 was the worst wildfire season in half a century. Wildfires burned 8.4 million acres of wilderness that year, destroying 800 structures and nearly eradicating the federal government’s costly facilities at Los Alamos, New Mexico. The total tab for the year’s fires was nearly $3 billion.

This summer’s fires perpetuate another frightening trend: Increasingly, the most widespread and destructive fires are started by the government itself. In addition to government employees being the catalysts for this year’s Colorado and Arizona fires, last year’s Los Alamos fire whipped out of control after federal government employees failed to control a prescribed burn. And Californians are still recovering from their worst fire in decades—one started by a firefighter seeking fame.

Anti-logging policies blamed

Dale Bosworth, chief of the U.S. Forest Service, fixed blame for the rash of catastrophic wildfires on misguided environmental policies. Specifically, Bosworth blamed no-logging policies that have led to unnaturally thick forests.

“We have so many more trees out there than under normal conditions,” said Bosworth after touring several of the fires. “There might have been 40 to 50 ponderosa pines per acre at one time. Now you’ve got several hundred per acre.”

Bosworth said forests today are so thick fires are racing along treetops, in a phenomenon known as “crowning,” without ever having to touch the ground. If forests had been thinned by logging, the fires would have to touch ground before spreading, making them more easily doused by fire crews.

The solution, according to Bosworth, is to permit some forms of logging in national forests. Even limited logging was largely banned during the Clinton administration’s tenure.

Jim Wheeler, assistant fire chief in Flagstaff, Arizona, agreed with Bosworth’s prescription. “The point is this: Either we start thinning the forests ourselves or we are going to lose them to a catastrophic fire.”

Wheeler practiced what he preached after an outbreak of wildfires six years ago blackened much of the Arizona landscape. He worked with officials in the Coconino National Forest to thin forests on 100,000 acres of land adjacent to Flagstaff.

The program has been remarkably effective. In June 2002, the same month the Fort Apache fire blazed out of control, a wildfire broke out near Flagstaff. The Flagstaff fire raced toward a subdivision of homes … but then, unlike the Fort Apache fire, the Flagstaff died out in a grove of ponderosa pines Wheeler had thinned.

In Congressional testimony the week of June 10, Bosworth said an “analysis paralysis” caused by environmental regulations and lawsuits prevents the U.S. Forest Service from implementing solutions such as the thinning program undertaken by Wheeler. Bosworth testified that 73 million of the 192 million acres administered by the Forest Service are in danger of severe fire, tens of thousand of acres are dying due to insects and diseases, and the few roads that exist are in large parts unusable. Anti-logging and anti-roadbuilding policies are the prime culprits.

To manage, or not to manage?

According to the Wall Street Journal, “It’s no accident that two of the main Clinton culprits— former director of Fish & Wildlife Jamie Rappaport Clark and former Forest Service boss Michael Dombeck—have both landed at the National Wildlife Federation, which broadcasts across its Internet homepage, ‘Fires Are Good.'”

The Sierra Club gave the story a similar spin. “Fire is a natural part of the forest and has an important role to play, just like sunshine and rain,” said the Sierra Club’s 2001 report on forest fires.

Such thinking rankles Representative Tom Tancredo (R-Colorado)—not to mention thousands of residents across the American West. “It’s that kind of thing we’re dealing with here—the idiocy of bureaucrats and environmental extremists, who don’t want any kind of management in the forest at all,” said Tancredo, a proponent of more active forest management. “They’d rather see the whole thing burn, then start over again in 100 years.”

Ted Zukoski, staff attorney for the Land and Water Fund of the Rockies, attempted to absolve the government of blame for the rash of out-of-control wildfires. “I would submit that the weather might have had something to do with it,” said Zukoski, who contended proponents of more active forest management are advancing hidden agendas on behalf of timber companies.

Responded Forest Service Chief Bosworth, “If someone thinks we’re proposing this for the timber industry—well, there’s not even an industry for us to propose it for. There’s not even a sawmill left in Colorado.”

In Flagstaff, there was no timber industry available to implement Wheeler’s successful forest management program. He paid independent contractors $300 an acre to remove the trees, which were mostly chopped and sold as firewood.

For more information …

The 2000 wildfire season was documented and analyzed in several issues of Environment & Climate News. See, for example, “The lesson of Los Alamos” (August 2000), “Wildfires threaten homes and children” (October 2000), “Forest fires scorch seven million acres” (November 2000), and “Environmental extremists destroying National Forests” (January 2001).

More than two dozen policy documents on the wildfires issue are available through PolicyBot. Search the topic/subtopic combination Environment/Forests.