Background on this topic. The below post may be highly controversial. I’m posting it because it’s a voice I haven’t heard in some of the media, which equates more burned acres simply to climate change and hence more future wildfire acres, in a fairly apocalyptic framing. There are two problems with this in my view 1. it’s complex, so simplifying to one cause is actually not true and 2. it ignores all the levers we have to deal with wildfires before our energy is decarbonized, even ones we’re spending megabucks with defense contractors on like new technologies.
This kind of reporting also ignores the people who actually work with wildfire and their views, which I’m sure are diverse, like any other group. I see this as part of an ongoing trend to amplify the voices of coastal media and academics (people who work with words) and downplay the voices of people who work directly with things. The downside of this amplification and deamplification, as I see it, is that by not hearing those voices, we (the people) think we can’t do the things we can do (to improve wildfire suppression, like the Tim Hart Act); and can do the things we can’t do (e.g., finishing forest plans in three years; putting it in a reg did not make it so). And weirdly (feature or bug?) some disagreements, rather than discussed and understood, are simply dismissed by ad Partiem (I made that up and TSW Latin scholars can help) arguments (e.g. “Republicans are against WFU”).
So Murry can be right, wrong, or anywhere in between. I don’t know, this isn’t my area. But I think his voice needs to be heard and I’m not sure I’ve heard it elsewhere.
Guest post by Murry Taylor
I put this up on the Smokejumpers Facebook page yesterday. It’s in response to an article in a Seattle newspapter about the North Cascade Smokejumper Base in Winthrop, Washington. It’s gotten some attention with various groups pushing for more effective intial attack on wildfires in the west. Here’s what I wrote:
Murry Taylor here. I had 33 seasons fighting fire, 26 as a smokejumper. And now I’ve had 22 seasons on a Cal Fire lookout, so I’ve seen a lot of what I’m talking about. I’m also the author of Jumping Fire: A Smokejumpers Memoir of Fighting Wildfire. While I fully agree that poor forest management (as in accumulated fuels) has led to many of these big fires in the west, I want to point out something else here. One of the big reasons so much public land in the west has burned is the under-utilization of smokejumpers the past couple decades.
I agree that this article is a pretty comprehensive look at current smokejumping, the work, the demands, the deep satisfaction. Glad I got to read it, but I wish it had included the fact that since 2020, the jumpers only averaged 4.5 fire jumps a season. That’s a terrible under-utilization of such a critical resource. In the past we easily jumped twice that many, and some years four times as many. I’ve seen it many times while on the lookout, Duzel Rock. Fires have not been staffed for a day or two and then gone big and cost tens if not hundreds of millions while the jumpers sat unused. There seems to be a lack of understanding among fire managers in the Forest Service about the capability of these jumpers. Dispatchers have said they didn’t put jumpers on a fire because the “trees were too tall,” or the “winds were too strong.” Clearly they didn’t understand that the jumpers carry 150 let-down ropes, and have a spotter in the plane throwing streamers, and know EXACTLY what the wind is over the fire. The good news is that things seem to be changing for the better. Allowing jumpers to get back to 10 plus fire jumps per season would save big money and lots of acres. For those who think we need to get more fire back on the land, all I can say is, Don’t worry, there’s going to be plenty of that given the way fires burn now. The policy of putting ALL these early season fires out while small would be a big help. That way, when August–the toughest part of fire season– comes the handcrews wouldn’t be scattered all over hell, exhausted, and the skies wouldn’t be filled with smoke so that Air Ops are critically limited. As I mentioned above, things seem to be changing, using jumpers more here and there on various forests in the west. Hopefully that will continue.
To go on here, I talk with jumpers and hotshots all the time and they tell me that “Yes, sometimes the fuels and new fire weather are a factor in making fires harder to catch.” But MOSTLY, they say, there’s always something that can be done to catch these fires if they are hit while small. As I wrote in Smokejumper magazine last summer, the Rouge River-Siskiyou N.F. in Southern Oregon has taken a more aggressive approach to putting fires out small. In the last three seasons they’ve had 192 fires and ONLY burned 50 acres. This was achieved by prepositioning jumpers during lightning storms, better utilization of rappellers, and contract fire resources. You can read the full article on Wildfire Today by finding it in the archives here. It seems other forests are looking at that now and changes are in the wind. My latest novel, Too Steep and Too Rough tells the story of what I’ve seen as the big problem with weak initial attack here locally in the past two decades. Over and over, while on my lookout, Duzel Rock, I here that certain fires weren’t attacked early because the country was “too steep and too rough.”