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Fires and states

Dec 26, 2013 - By Steven R. Peck

Western governors say they are ready to do more, and they ought to be given the chance

Our nation's western governors recently had a good discussion on wildfires. After another bad fire season in Wyoming and other states in our region, the governors are seeking and offering to provide answers.

Wyoming Gov. Matt Mead's take on it was straightforward: "We are willing to try new things" on preventing fires, containing fires, suppressing fires and responding to the aftermath of fires.

Bravo. Wyoming and other states are not, and must not be, set in their ways when it comes to wildfires.

One thing that is certain to come up is the question of when a fire ought to be quashed as quickly as possible, and when it can be permitted to burn. The long-term ecological benefits of fire are better understood today than they used to be, and all-out fire suppression hasn't been prevailing policy for a long time.

But we now seem to be in a period of more fire activity than we used to see. Wyoming always has been dry country, but the apparent warming and drying of the climate has led to a longer "fire season." What used to be a concern primarily of mid- to late summer has, in recent years, begun as early as April and continued past the autumnal equinox across a wide swath of the U.S. defined roughly by the Mountain Time Zone and parts west.

Invariably, policy matters will butt heads with scientific study as more is learned about wildfires. In the meantime, what "new things" might be possible? Some call for more, bigger, faster airplanes to target fires from the sky. The World War II-era bombers refitted for firefighting are passing from the scene, and better aircraft technology ought to help as a new fleet is built.

Fremont County got a close-up view in July of the big DC-10 jumbo jet now rigged up as a slurry bomber. There is talk of developing a few more of those planes and having them stationed across a wide geographic area. Wyoming has been mentioned as a home base for one of them.

Private property issues come into play. Better forest development practices by landowners get due credit for lessening fire dangers to inhabited areas over the past 20 years. Those need to continue and will. A related issue involves more penalties for those who start or spread fires, either deliberately or through ignorance and negligence. Just such a case in Wyoming got deserved attention last month.

Evaluation and re-evaluation of forest practices must never end. Some say more roads are needed to fire-prone areas so that fire suppression can begin sooner. Others push for risk assessments to be tilted more toward the suppression side of the question and further from the let-it-burn point of view. It's unfortunate that funding concerns help drive this debate, but they do. Bigger firefighting efforts cost money.

Equipment is key to the issue, but so are people. The western governors and their federal partners might look to more training of lower-cost firefighting crews that can be deployed quickly, such as the one from the Wyoming Honor Farm in Riverton. Coming soon to our state is the new Wind River Job Corps. Could it play a role in training more firefighters in the heart of one of the nation's principal fire states?

The frustrating part of all this is the reality of where we live. There isn't much the Western Governors Association can do about drought. Heat suppression can't be legislated, nor can lightning suppression and wind suppression. Such factors will undermine any fire prevention and firefighting measures we undertake.

Many of these conditions are at the core of forest -- and forest fire -- ecology in the West. No amount of planning, funding and arguing ever will be able to address them. So, if much of what makes our part of America susceptible to fires and their consequences can't be controlled, it's a good idea now to concentrate on those elements that can be. The governors are right to remind federal authorities that flexibility and responsiveness at the state level often trumps what can be accomplished federally. Washington ought to recognize that and look for more ways the states can provide fuller partnership on firefighting.

The Western Governors Association did some productive work. Now, let's keep focusing some of our best, most-creative and most-industrious attention on wildfires -- and not just at the conference table.

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