Aviation accidents account for more wildland firefighter deaths than any single other cause. From 1999 to 2009, 61 firefighters died as a result of air crashes. On Sunday, two more aviators’ names were added to that list when their airtanker crashed while dumping retardant on the White Rock fire. On that same day, tragedy was averted narrowly when another retardant airtanker was forced to make a belly landing because one of its gear failed to deploy.
In 2002, a government-appointed Blue Ribbon Panel concluded that “The safety record of fixed-wing aircraft and helicopters used in wildland fire management is unacceptable.” The report noted that “if ground firefighters had the same fatality rate [as firefighting aviators], they would have suffered more than 200 on-the-job deaths per year.” Since the Blue Ribbon report’s publication, aviation-related fatalities have gone up 50% compared to the three-year period preceding the panel’s report – not including this past weekend’s tragic loss of life.
When a firefighter risks his life rescuing a child from a burning home, we applaud his heroism. If he dies in the effort, whether successful or not, we honor his sacrifice, knowing he gave everything to save that child’s life. While we mourn his loss, our society agrees that saving a child’s life is worth the risk and the ultimate price paid.
But, what are we to think when firefighters die trying to save sagebrush and juniper from burning? The White Rock fire threatens not a single home. It poses no danger to any person, save the firefighters themselves. The fire is burning in one of the least populated corners of our nation — the Utah/Nevada border — on federally-owned land inhabited by jack rabbits and coyotes.
Yet our government has thrown everything in its arsenal at this natural, lightning-caused fire. Over three hundred firefighters, including four helicopters, six engines, four bulldozers and three water tenders, continue to battle this fire before it . . . well, before it what? Before it burns itself out, just like an adjacent fire did a couple of years ago. The total financial tab will cost taxpayers upwards of a million dollars, while the cost in human life is immeasurable.
Our society’s aerial war against wildfire will continue to sacrifice lives and money in a fruitless campaign against Nature. Each year, we dump tens of millions of gallons of toxic retardant on fires, with no evidence that these bombings improve firefighting effectiveness. There is no correlation between the amount of aerial retardant used and success in keeping fires small. We know that the best way to protect homes from wildland fire is to keep vegetation clear from around the house and build with fire-resistant roofing. Retardant doesn’t save homes; proper construction and landscaping save homes.
Some in Congress, including Oregon’s Senator Ron Wyden, think the solution is to give pilots new airplanes. Half-a-billion dollars of shiny new airplanes will not make aerial firefighting any more effective. Nor will new planes make the job substantially safer. Flying low through smoke on hot, windy days in the nation’s most rugged landscapes is a recipe for disaster no matter what aircraft is being piloted.
Sensible wildland fire policy is less sexy and heroic than the war-like television footage of bombers raining red retardant on burning brush. Avoid building in fire-prone land. If you do build, use fire-resistant roofing, covered gutters, and keep landscaping around your house low and green. We know these Firewise tactics work; and is the only strategy that works regardless of fire intensity or firefighting effectiveness.
Ten years ago, the government’s Blue Ribbon panel said the aerial firefighters’ death rate was “unacceptable.” Today, the government’s fruitless and ineffective aerial war against wildland fire can only be called immoral. Congress should stop pandering to our innate fear of fire and promote sensible fire management policies that save lives and homes.