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Ecologist calls for broader job for wildland firefighters

by Webmaster |

BOISE, Idaho - Tim Ingalsbee wants to broaden the job of wildland firefighters, training crews how to set forest fires as well as put them out, and using those skills year-around.

Ingalsbee is the director of the Western Fire Ecology Center for the American Lands Alliance in Eugene, Ore. He wants the government to use fire to return the forests to health rather than merely reacting by throwing money and firefighters at the flames.

"They should use fire suppression to meet some ecological targets," said Ingalsbee, a former firefighter for the Forest Service and National Park Service.

The National Interagency Fire Center in Boise, which coordinates wildland firefighting across the country, says it is doing what Ingalsbee recommends, just not as fast as he wants.

The debate comes as spring - and the start of the 2004 wildfire season - draws closer. The season starts each spring in the desert Southwest, and moves north with warmer weather.

Historically, fire consumed far more western forest each year than it does now. Ingalsbee said on average, fire burned about 30 million acres of forest each year in the early decades of the 20th century.

"There was no crisis, no national hysteria," he said.

But in the 1930s, forest managers adopted a "10 a.m. policy" which called for fires to be controlled by 10 a.m. after the first report of smoke.

Smokejumper crews, bulldozers and retardant bombers appeared after World War II to wage war on fires. Last year, only about 4 million acres burned, although the blazes cost homes and lives in Arizona and California.

Ingalsbee said that leaves millions of acres every year that historically should have burned. When the forest doesn't burn, brush, limbs and other flammable debris accumulate, setting the stage for an eventual horrendous blaze that endangers fire crews. Twenty-eight wildland firefighters died last year.

"Every incident puts firefighters' lives at risk," Ingalsbee said. "It's so much better from a standpoint of safety, managing fires instead of throwing flesh and blood at them."

Ingalsbee said firefighting crews should become "pyrotechnicians," trained to set and manipulate blazes to clear out tens of millions of acres of forest fuel.

The seasonal firefighters could go to full-time, lighting blazes during the colder months when they will not explode into uncontrollable fires. In the summer, they would suppress some fires or manipulate them into clearing overgrown parts of the forest.