LATE LAST JULY, JERRY AND GAYLE Sorenson were given a "mandatory evacuation order" to leave their home in the Illinois River Canyon of southwest Oregon. The Biscuit Fire, which had doubled in size the previous day, was fast approaching their residence; state and federal firefighters feared they would not be able to stop it.
"We had just finished building our house after five years of construction," says Jerry. "I remember pounding every nail and cutting every board. We weren't going to leave it to burn."
When they refused to leave their private inholding in the Siskiyou National Forest, firefighters gave them emergency shelters that they could retreat to if the buildings caught fire. To give them a safe place to put the shelter, the firefighters lit their meadow on fire, then departed. The Sorensons watched helplessly as the meadow fire burned $10,000 worth of pine, cedar, and Douglas-fir lumber that Jerry had hand-milled for a future addition on the house. "They just lit the fire and left," he rues.
By mid-August, the Biscuit Fire had blown up into Oregon's largest fire in a century. Smoke filled the Illinois Valley and the Forest Service warned thousands of people in Cave Junction and other valley towns that they might have to evacuate at any time.
Excess fuels Many forest policy experts claim the Biscuit Fire, like several other recent major forest fires, was fed by the buildup of "excess fuels" - downed wood, scrub growth, and sick and dead trees that have collected in the nation's forests because of a strong government commitment to fire suppression and environmentalist opposition to logging. (See "The Forest Service's Tinderbox," Vol. 23, No. 4.) With the excess fuels problem in mind, U.S. Sen. Ron Wyden (D-Ore.) visited Cave Junction in early August and promised to go back to Congress and "change United States policy so we're not coming back here summer after summer."
Record-sized fires in Colorado and Arizona have led to similar calls from other members of Congress. Just a couple of weeks before the Wyden promise, Senate Democratic Leader Tom Daschle (D-S.D.) proposed to exempt fuel treatment activities in the Black Hills National Forest from environmental lawsuits. Commodity interests see Daschle's and Wyden's positions as a breakdown of the hegemony environmental groups have had over federal land policy for the last decade or so.
Positions on fire policy became even more polarized when President Bush flew to Oregon last August to announce a "healthy forests initiative" that would remove many of the legal impediments to forest thinning and provide funding to thin or otherwise treat 2.5 million acres of federal land a year for 10 years.
Despite the stampede to do something about fire, advocates of smaller government should hesitate before supporting proposals to give the Forest Service bureaucracy more money and power. The agency is more than willing to take advantage of public paranoia and ignorance regarding fire in order to get bigger budget. Meanwhile, the debate between environmental and timber interests turns out to be just a battle over pork. Because Congress has proven itself willing to treat fire problems by throwing money at them, numerous interest groups are positioning themselves to get their share.
SMOKEY WAS WRONG
For five decades, Smokey the Bear has taught us to keep fire out of the forest. Yet Smokey was little more than a shill for Forest Service efforts to get bigger budgets from Congress for forest management and fire suppression. With enough money and resources, the agency promised, it could keep fires out of the forests completely.
In 1908, Congress actually gave the Forest Service a blank check for emergency fire suppression. As a result, the agency became fixated on suppression over any other fire policy. Many forest researchers and private landowners, particularly in the Southeast and in California's Sierra Nevada, argued that frequent light burns would prevent an accumulation of fuels and thus reduce the danger of catastrophic fire. …