Last summer the West was on fire, as it has been before. Wildlands, resort areas, national parks, and rural towns burned in 11 states, from Alaska to Nevada, California to Wyoming. The total costs were well over $1 billion. Where I live, in Sun Valley, Idaho, the Beaver Creek fire burned roughly 111,000 acres next to us in 16 days, costing $11.6 million. Fire crews called it a “snow fire,” one that goes out only when the first snows fall. What will happen this summer with even more drought in the region?
Residential settlement has occurred across the West since it was “opened.” But it is only in the past few decades that homeowners have created an urban-wildland interface, building right up to the edge of, and even within, forest territories. Whether this is sensible development or not, it exists. Homeowners increasingly understand how to fireproof their property: Clear away brush and trees near structures, use metal or asphalt roofing and other fire-resistant materials in construction, move stacked wood and other flammables away from homes and outbuildings, maintain two escape routes.
Human settlement in the West has failed to buffer itself beyond private property - to protect at the level of town, subdivision, resort area, and public camp grounds. There are few places one can go without seeing clustered stands of dead odgepole pine or white bark pine skeletons against the skyline, hovering near emerging stands of new growth or heaped in piles near trails and homes. Fire fuels are abundant, blighting a forest’s esthetic, inviting hotter, bigger, more out-of-control fires, and requiring more labor and expense to maintain public lands. The ever-present deadfall reflects a century of fire suppression, ongoing global warming, and the salutary environment these create for a host of tree killing insects, such as the well-known pine bark beetle.
It seems a good time to implement a modern version of Franklin Roosevelt’s Civilian Conservation Corps: the Wildlands Conservation Corps (WLCC). The WLCC would be a federal program, run by participating states, that offers people opportunities to help protect natural resources, human life, and structures at the urban-wildland interface. Crews would be trained to systematically clear deadfall bordering human settlement with high fire risk in an environmentally aware manner. The result would be a 500-1,000 foot wide border of safer land just outside human communities at their junction with wildlands. This would enable fire crews to move more safely and easily to bulldoze a fire break, lay hose, and conduct backburns, if needed. It would reduce the fire containment period. It would help save millions in fire-fighting costs, reduce local economic disruption, reduce human anxiety, and improve the blighted look of some areas.
A job with the WLCC would pay a decent wage for a two-year commitment, including two weeks of training. It would include food, clothing and housing allowances. It would provide work for people at a time of high unemployment, enable their acquisition of new skills, and build greater first-hand awareness of the natural resources we are so lucky to have in America. Like the Peace Corps or Americorps, the program could yield a unique life experience for participants.
The up-to-date conservation ethic is to let nature follow her cycles of birth, aging, death, and rebirth - including fire. NO intervention unless absolutely necessary for human health and safety. We are reversing Smoky the Bear's policy which put nature out of her usual balance. Now, we can assist the return of healthy forests by permitted fire and fire containment, environmentally-
sound removal of deadfall at the urban-rural interface, constraints on urban-wildland development, and moe public education about the forest environment. Helping to restore healthy forests would be the purpose of the WLCC.
Those of us living in or near wildlands are lucky to observe Nature’s cycles, including fire; it is beautiful, cleansing, and necessary. With the help of hard-working and increasingly knowledgeable fire crews, Western wildlands are returning to the once-healthy “fire mosaic” of lands in which burned and non-burned areas are intermixed. Low delicate greens peek up through blackened ground. Wildflowers pop - colorfully quilting the land. Vistas are broad and sun-filled. Tiny trees cluster in small stands that will become giant green stalwarts. This forest cycle (which holds for grasslands and savanna as well) has been massively orchestrated and balanced by nature for eons.
Humans have intervened far too much in nature, trying to control it for our purposes. The work of a WLCC respectful of fire but offering a practical assist to containment, just might help her back into balance – and humans back into balance with her as well.