Fire risk

This past weekend, while snow was falling in the mountains of western Colorado, along the foothills west of Fort Collins, a fast-growing wildfire had forced residents from their homes.

The Galena Fire, burning near the site of last year’s High Park Fire, was reported late Friday morning and was estimated at 750 to 1,000 acres by that night. The Coloradoan of Fort Collins described it this way:

“An early wildfire forced hundreds from their homes as it charged several miles through Lory State Park ….” Flames reached the parking lot of the Lory visitor center. Firefighters quickly gained some control and evacuees were allowed to return home Saturday evening but warned to remain packed and ready to go.

Not too many years ago, mid-March was considered outside of the fire season. That was not true last year, it is not true this year, and it is likely to be a realistic planning schedule in the future. As Colorado experiences a prolonged drought, and as weather patterns change, winters have been shorter and drier, and temperatures have been higher. That means agricultural burning starts earlier, and recreational users move onto public lands earlier. It also means fires are more able to ignite and grow during times when winter weather used to limit them and when high spring winds now help them grow.

But the nation’s firefighting model has yet to respond to the West’s expanding wildfire risk. Nationally, according to The Coloradoan, wildfire preparedness is at Level 1 on a scale of 1-5, meaning few significant resources are available.

Most air tankers and helicopters are privately owned and contracted by the season, and that has not happened yet. No firefighting planes were available to be summoned. One helicopter arrived on Saturday and another was scheduled for Sunday, but the wind severely hampered their ability to protect homes in the path of the fire.

President Barack Obama last year signed legislation authorizing the Forest Service to hire seven additional large air tankers, but losing bidders have contested the contract, meaning the seven new planes – any seven, from any combination of bidders – are not available for deployment. That is a classic case of bureaucrats fiddling while fires burn.

Seasonal public-lands firefighting crews are not yet ready to mobilize. Sequestration – automatic cuts assigned to agencies many months ago, rather than reductions carefully debated in light of current conditions – affect those agencies. It is easy for small-government advocates to insist that firefighting forces have not been cut, but when those forces are not available, it is other entities, also dependent to varying degrees on federal funds, that must respond.

In other words, fighting big fires is the responsibility of the government, and that is appropriate. Neighbors with shovels, garden hoses and wet bedspreads cannot do it. Neither can small volunteer fire departments, which step up courageously and energetically, but lack numbers and equipment.

Federal firefighters, equipped with adequate resources, need to be ready to go when the fire season starts, not when an outdated calendar says it should. The costs associated with that readiness must be balanced against the increasing risk of early-season wildfires that can sweep across residential subdivisions as they did last year. Wildfires are not political; protecting people, homes and land from them also must not be.

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