May 02, 2011

Two Crazy Days, Part 5: Bureaucratese

Part 1: "It's Blowing Up"

Part 2: The E-Word

Part 3: "No Structures Burned?"

Part 4: The Worst is Over

A news report from last Saturday on KOAA (Pueblo-Colorado Springs)
"There will be some smoke on the incident"—at what two-day workshop do people learn to talk like that?  

"You will still see some smoke." Subject-verb-object. So simple. Note how the raging wildfire becomes the bureaucratically neutral term, "incident."
Twenty-four hours after this report was broadcast, the district ranger held a community meeting for local residents. He brought a bodyguard.

What I mean by that is that for the first time in three days of meetings, an armed Forest Service law-enforcement guy showed up along with all the fire specialists. I could only wonder if their boss, the district ranger, expected someone to come flying over the folding chairs and go for his throat.

But there were no fisticuffs. Someone did shout that "the guy who made that decision [not to put it out immediately, i.e., the ranger] was an idiot!" A number of speakers called for immediate suppression of all fires that might threaten homes.

On the other hand, there was a round of applause for the Forest Service and BLM firefighters.

I joined in clapping—but I do feel that the fire specialists were too optimistic when they proclaimed that a hand-dug fire line reinforced by burnouts would hold against 50-mph winds. Embers from further back were just wafted right over it—and we were off to the races.

The rocky ridge that was supposed to contain the fire downwind is blackened on both sides. Did no one say, "Forget the bighorn sheep-habitat improvement, guys, this thing is going to run tomorrow when the wind comes up"? We all had the same weather forecast.

Why Government Foresters Are Like Medical Doctors

If you add up all the money spent on the average American's medical care, I have been told, the bulk of it is spent in the last two weeks of life.

The medical establishment talks "prevention," but they spend money in the Intensive Care Unit.

Likewise, the Forest Service talks about preventing fire in the "urban interface"—wherever homes and other structures are close to forest boundaries, be they truly urban or not—but they do not spend so much money on the problem.

Give them a lightning-strike forest fire though, and they spend money like it was the invasion of Iraq.

Although parts of his document give me pause, I cannot disagree with Randall O'Toole's position here: 
[Forest Service] leaders are taking advantage of Congress's willingness to throw money at the fire issue. With an increasingly large share of the Forest Service bureaucracy dependent on the extra funding that comes around each fire season, the agency blindly puts out almost all fires. Even people within the Forest Service fear that the agency's traditional commitment to conservation is being lost in an orgy of spending on fire-related activities.
The local foresters—and I—fully realize that this community is at risk from wildfire.  We have forested public lands on two sides and part of the third.

Back in about 1988—that was two district rangers ago—the San Carlos Ranger District offered a plan for prescribed burning to reduce fire risk around us. I was at the meeting, and as I recall, the general sentiment was strongly against fire any form. 

Various other plans were proposed during the 1990s. In 2000, they did have one successful prescribed burn about two miles from where I am writing. (I reported on it for Colorado Central magazine.)  That burn went as planned (not all do), but it was deliberately set well away from any homes or barns.

In 2002, some thinning was done on the national forest near us. Those thinned areas did burn less than surrounding areas during the 11,000-plus-acre Mason Gulch Fire of July 2005, which came within a quarter mile of some homes, including mine.

Ironically, now I hear the Mason Gulch Fire touted as having removed a lot of the fuel load around the community. Yes, it has, but other plans for "treatment"—prescribed burns or mechanical thinning—were put back on the shelf. They are just not as glamorous as a monster forest fire. I don't know if the problem is money or agency priorities or both.

So the timber in the "interface" just gets thicker and thicker, waiting for the next lightning strike or tossed cigarette butt.

As for the Sand Gulch Fire, despite snow and sleet off and on for the last twenty-four hours, it is still burning a little. That is to be expected. Federal firefighters are still working on it and will be for some time. Our little volunteer department is finished, we hope, and looking forward to the income that we as a department will collect for the "rental" of our engines and personnel.

Thanks, American taxpayers. We will spend it on new gear. After all, it is only May—and the real fire season has not even begun.

1 comment:

Anonymous said...

U.S. Forest Service Law Enforcement Officers do NOT take orders from the District Ranger. They have their separate chain of command which is strictly law enforcent/police---a FS law enforcement boss would be the Captain of that National Forest in the USFS Law Enforcement office at the Forest HQ. USFS Law Enforcement broke away from USFS in 1993 because of conflict of interest...National Park Service is the only remaining federal land management agency whose law enforcement still take orders from a non-law enforcement hierarchy.