Mistakes of the past don’t justify 
inadequate action on wildfire today

Somewhere near the top of the list of the most powerful forces on earth — I’m talking about physics here, not the “kind word from a friend during a difficult time” kind of powerful force — is catastrophic wildfire.

Tsunamis. Hurricanes. Volcanoes. Floods. Earthquakes. Catastrophic wildfires.

I don’t know much about tsunamis or volcanoes, except for a few hangers-on of residual knowledge from Mr. Edward’s Earth Science class. I know enough about hurricanes to hold a three-minute conversation at a cocktail party (hat tip to Jim Cantore at the Weather Channel), which is to say I don’t know much about them.

But forest fires, I know a little bit about.

When I first heard that the top job was open on the subcommittee in the U.S. House that oversaw the National Forest System, I was only 25, but I knew I wanted the gig.  A more senior legislative staffer had previously shoveled scads of books and white papers on environmental law at me, providing intellectual ammo for a self-administered education on the framework of laws and rules that guided forest policy. But when I asked around, I was told I had better show real command of the science at work in the nation’s forests if I wanted to escape the interview round.

So, I read everything I could get my hands on — forestry textbooks, journals and magazines, even entomological analyses of the growing incidence of bug kill across forest types.

Fire and fire policy, then as now, was the big topic of the day. I studied it vigorously.

By the end of my cram-fest, I could recite the statistics from the most storied fire of the previous century, the great Montana fire of 1910. I learned how the public and political outcry from that and other horrific fires triggered a new national policy, one of determined fire suppression. When forest fires started, the federal government made it a priority to put them out. As in, mostly all of them. For 100 years.

As I turned the pages in one document and then the next, I learned what a foolhardy policy this turned out to be. Semi-regular fire is a vital part of a natural ecosystem.  By squelching it from the landscape, we had re-engineered our forests, tens of millions of acres of which were now over-crowded and biologically weakened, vulnerable to bug kill and insect infestations, a small ignition away from stand-replacing conflagration.

Compounding the biological mess was a human dimension. All across the West, the masses had moved to the forests. While wide-scale fire suppression was a terrible mistake then, the government had no choice but to harness massive resources to contain fires near homes and communities now.

This was no simple job. Heavy forest fuel loading meant that fires had to be contained early if they were to be contained at all. Deploying assets over a spatial area as large as the western United States to achieve this was a task easier said than done.

As it turned out, my full forestry immersion was enough to land me that subcommittee job. It was an amazing time to be there. That first fire season, I had a front-row seat to witness the awesome and awful power of large-scale catastrophic fires.

The Biscuit Fire in Oregon. The Rodeo-Chediski Fire in Arizona. The Hayman and Missionary Ridge fires here in Colorado. It was one of the worst fire seasons in the nation’s history.

More than a decade later, I still have a special place in my heart for the nation’s forests, and I follow fire policy keenly.  Tragically, a good portion of our state has had its own front-row seat to witness the awesome and awful power of large-scale fire events. The destruction and loss has been staggering.

When I hear certain officials today say we can’t afford to maintain our own fleet of air tankers to protect lives and homes from these horrors, I shake my head.

This is one of the most powerful forces on Earth, and yet we meet it with half-measures.

Can you imagine government leaders in New Orleans saying we can’t afford a full fix to the levies post-Katrina, or officials in Tornado-Alley, Oklahoma, rebuilding schools with anything other than tornado resistant materials?

No, of course not.

Putting out fires in the backcountry for 100 years was indeed a terrible, terrible error. Refusing to make available the tools of rapid response to protect the lives and communities in harm’s way as a result of that policy now is reckless and worse.

Josh Penry is a former minoriy leader of the Colorado Senate. He is a graduate of Grand Junction High School and Mesa State College.


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