Monday, September 19, 2011

Cravaack calls for fire suppression, votes to cut fire suppression funds

Brant Lake in BWCA, 4 years after fire
Rep. Chip Cravaack stated last Thursday that the Forest Service should change its policy to quickly extinguish any fire in Boundary Waters Wilderness. At a Friday press conference, he stated "What we need to do is, we need to make sure that we have the vehicles and the capability of being able to fight fires." But in March, he joined with his party and voted to rescind $200 million from the Forest Service's wildland fire management program.

The arrival of Chip Cravaack on the scene of the Pagami Creek fire demonstrated why politicians should stay out of wildland management decisions. I could use the word "demagogue" to describe his actions, but perhaps I should choose one of its synonyms: firebrand, hothead, inflamer, or simply politician. For politicians like Cravaack, a natural event like a forest fire is a chance to stoke the smoldering resentment from the sixties and seventies over the designation of the BWCA as a wilderness area.

Appearing with Governor Dayton and Senators Franken and Klobuchar on Friday, Cravaack deferred a reporter's question about his plan to seek an act of Congress to force the Forest Service to immediately fight any fire, saying "now is not the time to be pointing fingers." Of course, that's exactly what he is doing by criticizing the policy to allow natural fires to burn unless they threaten private property or human lives.

The 90,000+ acre Pagami Creek fire began as a lightning strike one month ago and smoldered for weeks in a remote area of the Boundary Waters Canoe Area Wilderness. Rising winds and weeks of dry weather turned what looked like a harmless brushfire into one of the largest conflagrations in state history. So far, the Pagami Creek fire has been nearly entirely contained to the wilderness area and has destroyed only one structure, a DNR warden cabin. Let's hope it stays that way.

While review of this fire should lead the Forest Service to examine why their predictions about the threat from the Pagami Creek fire were incorrect, the policy itself is a sound one. In wilderness areas, fire is a natural part of the landscape. The 1988 conflagration in Yellowstone National Park shows that when you suppress fires, you create the conditions for larger, more destructive fires later.

In any case, Cravaack's sudden concern about wildfires is interesting, considering just 6 months ago he joined with his party to vote for a continuing resolution that slashed $200 million in funds from the Forest Service's fire management account. And Senators Franken and Klobuchar don't get a free pass - they voted for it too. 

Cravaack's laudatory words for the firefighters and his sudden interest in legislation to substitute pandering for scientific wildfire management shouldn't be allowed to conceal this vote.

Follow me on Twitter @aaronklemz

(Photo taken by the author in August 2011, video courtesy of The Uptake.)

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