An Immoral War

White Rock fire in red; note fire from couple years ago adjacent to the north. Both headed NE with the prevailing wind and expire when they hit the scant, low-elevation grass.

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.

7 thoughts on “An Immoral War”

  1. Actually there are a dozen or so homes to the south of where the air tanker went down and probably why it was there.
    Also, it is all fine and good for you to tell us how things are suppose to be. The fact is that this fire and nearly all fires now are likely to have greater severity and intensity than it would have historically. Large scale fires do not likely mimic historic disturbance regime thanks to the mistakes of unknowing people 150+ years ago. Not to mention the added dimension of invasive species. So your blame for what ever it is you are blogging about is a bit misplaced if you think we should just let all the fires go.
    If we can restore, to the best of our knowledge, the natural range of variability, we can restore the resiliancy and resistance of our ecosystems.

    These men died trying to protect people’s lives and investments. They also died trying to protect a watershed that thousands of people depend on.
    I really think it is absolutely wrong for you use the death of these men to support your misguided agenda, and I wish to educate you about the reality of it.

    • Las Vegas is south of where the airtanker went down, too.

      The fire was going northeast, went northeast, and is still going northeast. That’s the way the wind was blowing, is blowing, and is still blowing. Just like the previous adjacent fire to the north. Just like the old fire scars throughout this landscape.

      You work close to where these men lost their lives on a fire your district is suppressing. I’m sorry for your loss. I hope that lessons are learned from that loss. If not, aerial firefighters will continue dying at rates that exceed any other profession in these United States. If there were no alternative, and if what was at stake warranted that risk, then the loss might be justifiable. But there are alternatives that risk no lives. And what’s at stake isn’t worth a single one.

      • You may want to follow your own suggestions. You know the pithy statement about constructive crtiticism you put up for commenters?

        You do not know how far residences are to the burn. >3 miles
        You do not know what the weather was doing. 50+ mph
        you do not know what the live fuel moisture was/is. 5%
        You do not know what the fire behavior was like. Take a guess.

        Look at the burn scars to the south, the paradise fire and the eagle, and the stateline. The coyote fire to the north burned from the west side to the east and then wrapped around to the south. You are not a fire behavior expert and neither am I, but I would be willing to place bets against you all day long.

        Also you do not realize how far and fast a fire can travel in high winds in the basin and range geophysical setting. Milford flat 2008 ~320,00 acres.

        Did you know about the wind shifts expected with the incoming front?

        So I guess your proposed solution (intelligent people talk about ideas, I am tired of argueing with idiots) is to let fire remove the vegetation off of how many acres? 20,000, 100,000, 300,000? Will whatever number you decide is correct be applied to all ecosystems? Or just this particular point in the boundary between Nevada and Utah?

        Aren’t the lives of all people important? Or is it just the lives of fire fighters when it supports you distorted perspective on disturbance regimes? Ideological capitalism on the loss of others, that is an awesome tactic to convince the world of your ideas.

  2. For heaven’s 😉 sake, Andy, you can disagree with people, you can think they are misguided, but when you think they are “immoral” or their decisions are “immoral” you tend to inflame people rather than convince them.

    There is not really one arbiter of “morality.” Reasonable and good people, can, and do disagree about the morality of many things.

    • Sharon — The title of the post is “An Immoral War.” I called no one immoral. Nor did I call any person’s actions immoral.

      Sometimes societies or institutions behave immorally. That’s what I’m writing about.

      • Groups of people form governments and boards of directors and other decision-making bodies. So exactly what is it that you believe to be “immoral”?


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