Second-guessing firefighting unhelpful

The wildfire smoke diminished late last week, as cooler temperatures heralded the approach of fall. But the improving air quality didn't stop the constant flow of criticism aimed at forestry agencies for their perceived failings in fighting this season's many wildfires.

The invective was particularly hot on social media, where commenters variably blamed the Forest Service, environmental groups and government officials for the severity of the fires, the number of the fires and the inability of fire crews to "put them out."

Depending on the particular allegation, much of the blame was misdirected, oversimplified or flat wrong.

At the top of the list for criticism was the battle with the massive Chetco Bar fire. First reported July 12, the fire may have smoldered for a time before it was discovered. By July 15, it had grown to 45 acres, but it was burning in very steep terrain, with no safe way for crews to attack it on the ground. Steep terrain also means tricky winds, which makes aircraft operation risky.

A Forest Service statement noted, “Due to the tough landscape, there are no safety zones for crews anywhere remotely accessible to the fire. Safety of the public and our firefighters remains our priority.”

Much later, after high winds had caused that fire to explode in size and severity, one Facebook commenter snarkily announced that "two guys with a case of beer" could have put the fire out when it first started by urinating on it.

Other commenters — and writers of letters to the editor of this newspaper — have claimed forestry officials were employing a "let it burn" policy toward the Chetco Bar and other fires. That's simply wrong.

Still others demanded to know why retardant or water drops weren't used more frequently to "put out" the fires.

All of these responses reveal ignorance of how wildfires are fought, and overstate the effectiveness of the methods available.

If conditions are such that a new fire stays small, and crews can reach it quickly after it starts, they may actually be able to "put it out" using water hauled in by truck or dropped from aircraft. Often, however, that is simply not possible. Fires don't necessarily start near roads where water trucks can reach them, and aircraft may already be fighting fires elsewhere.

When a fire really gets going, there is no "putting it out." Instead, crews cut fire lines at a safe distance from the flames, removing flammable material in the hope that the fire will stop growing and go out on its own. But if the fire jumps the lines — when winds kick up and conditions are hot and dry — all bets are off.

That's what happened with the Chetco Bar fire. Nothing fire crews could have done could have prevented that, and it's unfair to suggest they or their commanders were somehow responsible.

Retardant drops attempt to lay down a blanket of chemical slurry that dampens the fire but doesn't "put it out." In steep, heavily timbered terrain, such as the Chetco Bar fire, retardant doesn't work as well as it does in more open areas.

Other critics wanted to know why there were relatively few firefighters assigned to Chetco Bar — about 1,600 at the end of August, compared with 5,000 to 8,000 at the height of the Biscuit fire in 2002. That's because thousands of separate fires were burning across the West at the same time, stretching resources thin, which was not the case in 2002.

If critics weren't second-guessing fire crews, they were declaring that more logging would have prevented many of this season's fires by reducing fuel loads in the forests. Others said, no, it's long-term drought caused by climate change that has led to longer, more severe fire seasons.

There is evidence to support either of those explanations, and the truth may involve some of both. What can or should be done to try to limit future fires will be the subject of much debate going forward. That debate needs to be encouraged, along with a full airing of all points of view.

But there will be plenty of time for that after the fall rains and winter snows finish off this challenging fire season. For now, crews are doing their best with the resources available, and Monday morning quarterbacks are not helpful.

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