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New look at federal fire policy

Heath Druzin (Idaho Statesman State Government Reporter) and I have spent much of the spring and summer gathering together a new look at the federal fire policy . It began during a conference of the American Society of Environmental History in March here in Boise. Jack Cohen, the Forest Service's top expert on how fire burns homes, Steve Pyne, perhaps the world's top expert and author on fire, historian Patty Limerick, I and others were on an all day panel discussion how the nation had gotten to the current fire policy. Pyne and I also were on a panel on the 1988 fires in Yellowstone. Cohen gave his presentation, much of which is covered in the Idaho Statesman's Sunday story , and I was struck that none of the fire people from the National Interagency Fire Center at the conference disagreed with his central points about how fires burns communities. Pyne, who is writing a book on what he calls the cultural revolution for restoring fires to public lands, is more circumspect about how much fire we allow on public lands. It's a larger question about what we want to do with those lands. But he agreed with Cohen that protecting homes was a technical problem that was largely solved and it didn't necessarily depend on fighting fires on public lands. Heath recalled the 2007 story of Secesh Meadows and Chief Bent's experience fit Cohen's narrative. Then Heath went on a tour with local fire managers that helped tell a story missed in the heat of battle last year. They frankly told how they made decisions and the outcome of those decisions, which you can read Wednesday. For me and most of the nation the debate began in 1988 when more than 1 million acres burned in and around Yellowstone National Park. KZBK tells the 1988 fire story with Steve Pyne, Don Despain and I. Then the debate was to burn or not to burn. The debate is more sophisticated today. Idaho Public Television also will have its own report on the issue, Wildfire," beginning Thursday July 24. We no longer are fighting fires primarily to protect timber that eventually will be harvested from public lands. Mostly we are fighting fires to protect homes and communities adjacent to public lands. We know how to protect timber from fire as demonstrated last year when little commercial timber burned in Idaho despite a record fire year. Now I know a lot of people are going to disagree with the findings of our reporting. It challenges our very senses. The U.S. Department of Agriculture reached many of the same conclusions in an audit. Tell me what you think. ———- Rocky Barker is the author of Scorched Earth: How the Fires of Yellowstone Changed America and environmental reporter for the Idaho Statesman.