Wilderness Fires: Who’s For What???

Prescribed fire in Eagle Cap Wilderness
Prescribed fire in Eagle Cap Wilderness

I find that what people think, or don’t think, goes in wilderness, and why to be fascinating. If it’s trammeled you can act to untrammel, because that would be trammeling.. Oh, well.

Here’s a link and below is an excerpt.

These prescribed fires in wilderness areas wouldn’t have this
preparation. There are no plans to thin before the fires, Larkin said.
And firefighters would be using trails and natural features, such as
rock outcroppings, as fire breaks rather than scratching in fire lines.
While the Forest Service has used prescribed fire in wilderness
elsewhere around the country, this would be the first time it would be
done in Central Oregon.
The Cascade Lakes and Scott Mountain burns are planned for fall days
when temperatures are cooler than the prime fire season of summer but
forests are still dry enough to burn hot.
Along with helicopters, the plan says firefighters on the ground may use
flame-dripping torches to start the fires. The goal is to have high
severity fires, burning through the tops of the trees and killing many
of them. Firefighters would wait to start to the fires when the weather
forecast calls for impending snow or rain.
The fires would create a patchwork of burned and unburned woods, where
lightning-sparked blazes would not grow as large as they do now, said
Geoff Babb, a fire ecologist with the Forest Service and U.S. Bureau of
Land Management in Central Oregon.
Such a patchwork would mimic the forest seen in century-old,
black-and-white photos of the forests near Bend and Sisters. For much of
the 100 years since, the Forest Service and other agencies were quick to
snuff wildfires even in the wilderness, creating an overgrown forest
prone to big fires.
“I think if many of those were allowed to burn, they would have created
those patches that we are talking about,” Babb said.
The Forest Service plans go against the intent of the Wilderness Act of
1964, which set aside lands to be left in their natural condition, said
Karen Coulter, director of the Blue Mountains Biodiversity Project in
“We are strongly opposed,” she said.
She offered threes reasons for her opposition to prescribed fire in
* Prescribed burning is the type of human management not intended for
* Protecting communities and other assets outside of wilderness is best
done by treating the forests close to them, not the backcountry.
* The fires wouldn’t burn the same as natural, lightning-started fires.
“Prescribed burning in wilderness is de facto management of wilderness
and contradicts the intention of the Wilderness Act to set aside
untrammeled wild places for spiritual solace, recreation and wildlife,”
she said.
While he considers lightning fires to be a natural part of wilderness
forests, Kevin Proescholdt, conservation director of Wilderness Watch,
said he is skeptical about the idea of prescribed fires burning in
wilderness. Proescholdt lives in Minnesota but works for the
Montana-based nonprofit focused on wilderness conservation. His
criticisms of the idea were in line with Coulter’s.
“It basically is a form of manipulation of the wilderness ecosystem by
humans that we are not supposed to do under the Wilderness Act,”
Proescholdt said.
Forest Service’s reasons
The Forest Service plans are legal, said Larkin, the Bend-Fort Rock
ranger, and he contends they are in the spirit of the Wilderness Act.
Larkin offers three reasons for doing the prescribed fires in the
* Returning the forest to a state where fire can plan a natural role and
lightning fires may be allowed to burn.
* Keeping wildfires that start in the wilderness in the wilderness.
* Increasing the safety for firefighters who respond to wildfires.
Babb and Larkin both emphasized that the burning would be done in a
relatively small piece of wilderness at a time, at most a couple hundred
acres, and the intention is not to burn the entire section outlined in
the plan.
“This is really the start of a process that we envision taking 20 to 30
years to finish,” Larkin said.

Also, I wonder why some people would think it is OK in some places but not in others.. or maybe it’s just a function of who is watching what forests.

Here’s an interesting paper I found on the topic on wilderness.net:

Interpreting the Wilderness Act
Varying interpretations of the specific language of the Wilderness Act contributes to the philosophical
split over manager-ignited fire. The Forest Service often equates historic conditions with naturalness.
However, Ryan wonders what point in history was natural – the point in time when white people arrived
or the point in time when the area was designated as wilderness or some other point? Whether or not
human actions are natural or can be natural is also a major question, in light of the Act’s focus on
humans as visitors. This question is further complicated by the history of Native American burning in
many places.
While restoration of naturalness or natural conditions is often the stated goal of manger-ignited fires,
the Wilderness Act also re quires that wilderness be untrammeled. According to Worf untrammeled
means that “you don’t control it, you don’t net it. You let nature’s processes go wherever you can.”
There is clear agreement that past fire suppression represents trammeling of wilderness. According to
Arno a mixed-severity fire region is “absolutely incredible for biodiversity,” and taking it away is
trammeling, “a much greater trammeling than most other things you can do in wilderness.” Morton also
agrees that suppression of fire has been a form of trammeling.

Nickas and Morton agree that manager-ignited fire also constitutes a trammeling. Morton claims that
they are trammeling to restore naturalness. Eckert calls this the “double trammel” and considers it the
crux of the issue. Do we trammel wilderness again to reduce the effects of previous trammeling? For
Morton “natural and untrammeled are 180 degrees apart,” meaning that they are in conflict with one
another regarding the issue of fire.Another trammel is required, in Morton’s view, to make wilderness
natural again.

Perhaps we need to hire more Forest Service philosophers to figure this out? We could get the “best available philosophy” ;)?

10 thoughts on “Wilderness Fires: Who’s For What???”

  1. I think if you’re in a situation where historic “out by 10 a.m.” total suppression policies have created unnaturally-large fuel loads on wilderness, appropriately-managed prescribed burns ought to be considered the best available option. The land’s going to burn at some point, and a “natural” fire driven to unnatural intensity by human-induced fuel loads isn’t really more “natural” than a prescribed burn.

  2. An interesting discussion without any clear, congressionally-described answers…thank God.
    But who is to say that any one specific wilderness tract did not go for several hundred years without a fire, thereby accumulating all the “excess and troubling” fuels that we are now so troubled about?
    I know Bob B believes that every acre of pre-European America was burned regularly by the natives. I am sure he is right in many areas, but don’t buy that sweeping theory for the most remote, high, steep portions of the Rocky Mtns that I have experienced. In these areas it is a given that fire has randomly occurred, and somehow, without the hand of man, these fragile ecosystems have survived since their inception after the ice retreated.
    My personal take is that ignited fire, on purpose, by the hand of man, with or without drip torches, is contrary to the intent of the Wilderness Act. Let the chips fall where they may in these areas. If a severe fire wipes out all the trees some years, natural events will deal with it. May look like Hell, may erode a bit and dump silt downstream somewhere, and the birds/bees may be relocated for decades, but that is what “natural” is all about.
    I fear a slow, creeping attitude in and out of the USFS that Wilderness needs more “management”. It does in one respect; too many people loving it to death. If we must “manage-it-up”, lets start with some controls on numbers of humans, not by igniting fires.

  3. Ed, in a perfect world, I would probably agree with you. But wilderness doesn’t exist in a vacuum. If a rip-roaring fire gets going in a fire-suppressed-for-90-years wilderness area and blows up into something that takes out an entire nearby urban interface community, there might be serious pressure to “do something” even more invasive of wilderness qualities.

  4. I once worked suppression on a lightning fire in a recently burned wilderness area. I felt like I was trammelling in that case, but I was glad to get the work and the district was glad to avoid the complications of an untamed fire.

    • I worked on a Wilderness fire, as well. At the time, during the “Siege of 1987”, it was probably the right thing to do. The fire had already been burning for a few days, approaching the Wilderness boundary. I had even started walking into the fire two nights before, finding another lightning fire just a mile from the trailhead. At the time, we had 43 wildfires, including a large campaign fire, on our Ranger District. We ended up flying into a spike camp in the Wilderness, as part of two handcrews. Here is the aerial view of what that fire area looks like today.


      It is very hard to say what would have happened had we not intervened. I guess an option would have been to install dozer lines at the boundary but, at the time, suppression resources were at a premium. It was said, at that time, that if your wildfire wasn’t over 5000 acres, North Zone didn’t want to hear from you. Just deal with it. We were lucky to get a small helicopter in the morning and the evening, for transport. I’m sure that Matt will be happy to know that I don’t consider this fire to be significantly damaging, judging by the current aerial view.

  5. Travis (hope the name is correct, since your name tag is mostly obscured by the message), in my experience here in the interior PNW, very few Wilderness areas are anywhere near any urban areas of note. Again, in my limited experience, the majority of lightning strikes that ignite these remote fires are on ridgetops and higher peaks. Not always, but usually so.
    As a previous posting remarked, it is probably more sensible and economic to “fireproof” the nearby forests to these urban areas than to suggest wilderness prescribed fire miles and miles distant. In other words, deal with the true WUI at a high level of fuel reduction (with regular upkeep) before you start worrying about a lightning strike on a far ridgetop.

  6. The new-ish wilderness character framework has a 5th quality of wilderness character, “Other” that I believe makes the space for USFS philosophy. It’s a classic case of bridging the postpositivist – posthuman divide in the realm of natural resource management. Thanks for the call for philosophy, even if somewhat in jest.


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