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March 17, 2014
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John Mattingly: Socratic Rancher 3-17-14

I’ve never heard a kid say that he or she wanted to grow up to be a lawyer. On rare occasions, I recall hearing a kid talk about being president of the United States, but never have I heard a kid talk about wanting to be a member of Congress.

When I was a kid, most of us went through a progression of wanting to be cowboys, sports heroes, policeman, and finally fire fighters. We even had a vacant lot where we started small fires and put them out with toy trucks. Today, of course, that probably would have landed us in hot water, but in those days is was just kids being kids.

Fire fighters are considered good people, right up there with military personnel. When a fire is blazing, and firefighters come to town, people treat them with respect, and sometimes with favors. Hand-made signs thanking and praising fire fighters are all over town and along roadsides. When fire fighters are lost in a blaze, there is often national attention given to their misfortune, and their bravery is heralded.

There are, however, several issues around fire fighting that have emerged as controversial, particularly in the last decade, when the number of fires increased dramatically over the previous decade, which also showed a dramatic increase. In the decade of the 1960s, approximately one million acres burned in the United States. By the 2000s, hundreds of millions of acres were burned, and in the decade starting in 2010, there have already been more acres burned than in the previous decade.

These numbers are staggering. Some are quick to attribute this to climate change. The warmer climate results in more inset vectors, more disease, more fuel in dead timber, and thus more fires. Smoke creates its own micro climate. Ash from the fires in the western U.S. last summer were found in Greenland ice and even on the edge of the North Pole. Black earth retains heat, and the cycle of heat, fuel, and fires accelerates.

Others point to Forest Service policies that have (a) put out fires that should have burned, (b) restricted harvests of timber and firewood that would have reduced available fuel, and (c) failed to mitigate undergrowth when possible, all of which have led to a perfect fire storm.

Worldwide, the area burned by fires is up 600 percent since 1986. Earlier snow melts sometimes mean longer growing seasons, ironic in the face of droughts. In the U.S., the “fire season” has expanded by almost three months since the early 1970s.

Whatever the cause of more fires in the U.S., the future looks bright for all those who want to be fire fighters. Even so, there are some who are questioning whether we can afford to fight all the fires in the future. Wild fires, as opposed to fires that start by humans, are natural disasters like hurricanes, floods, tornadoes, blizzards, and earthquakes. Those who point to the escalating cost of fighting fires are quick to mention that we don’t “fight” most other natural disasters. Whoever heard of a hurricane fighter, or a tornado fighter? Those who tried, typically did not try again.

The rapid and consistent increase in fire fighting requirements has led to an equally rapid increase in private fire fighting capacity. Private corporations move into fire areas with fire mitigation equipment, coating subscriber homes with a protective gel, Phos-Chek, that is effective in all but intense burns. This is now a $2 billion-a-year business in the U.S.

In addition, many insurance companies engage and mobilize private fire mitigation companies to protect multi-million dollar trophy homes near the forest when fire approaches. It’s simple economics: cheaper to protect a home in the path of a fire than replace it. This sometimes leads to the curious sight of a big log home standing in the midst of a forest of charred stumps. ❖

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The Fence Post Updated Mar 17, 2014 04:34PM Published Apr 7, 2014 02:22PM Copyright 2014 The Fence Post. All rights reserved. This material may not be published, broadcast, rewritten or redistributed.