"We had over one thousand fires the last four days, burned several hundred thousand acres, a number of structures damaged or lost..." So said Marc Rounsaville, the Fire Service agency's Deputy Director for fire and aviation management in Washington. And harried forest officials are talking about a relatively new term -- AMR, appropriate management response. The AMR determination could decide an all-out effort to fight a given fire, or simply to monitor it, or some effort in between.
How many acres get burned while AMR is being mulled over is up to the computers and a series of informational tools to try to determine, among other factors, what's at risk in the fire area.
Rounsaville says the modeling tools have been employed on fires in Minnesota, Georgia, and Florida and some in the far West. Given the extent of the Georgia-Florida damage recently, a trip back to the drawing board might be in order, or maybe a gentle caress of Chertoff's gut would do.
One thing seems a part of the equation: wilderness may get less immediate attention. Example: a couple of fires in the million-acre-plus Bob Marshall Wilderness in Montana, a pristine region along the Continental Divide. Last week a fire named "Fool Creek" broke out and grew swiftly to about 3,100 acres. A District Ranger in the Forest Service's Rocky Mountain District in Choteau, Montana, was quoted then as saying it would be tough for fire fighters to reach the area. "We're pretty much preparing for a long-term event," he said. A fire information officer added, "We're not just sitting back and watching. We are actively monitoring this fire." In other words, "Fire, don't try to leave the continental United States. We're keeping an eye on you."
By this week's end, things have changed, as AMR's are apt to do. The Fool Creek blaze is now some 4,500 acres and helicopters have dropped retardant, encouraging the flames to continue to burn the wilderness region but stay away from a couple of forest service cabins.
At week's end, another fire was burning about 20 acres in the wilderness, but closer to homes. AMR got more excited about this one, named "A Horn." Seth Carbonary, district fire marshal for the Spotted Bear Ranger District, says 25 jumpers have been put on this one, along with two ground crews, augmented by fire retardant bearing airplanes. Carbonary says, "Fires are not a bad thing in wilderness." Echoing that, the Bitterroot National Forest Service says it may not put out naturally occurring fires under some conditions and in areas that might benefit ecologically from a blaze.
The Forest Service hopes to have a meeting with insurance companies to discuss the growing number of homes being built near the woods in the hope insurers will help homeowners to be more firewise in the construction, landscaping, etc. The Service's aerial capacity is diminished. It had 41 air tankers in 2002 and has but 19 under contract today. Meanwhile, with drought stalking much of the West, that cabin in the woods may not be such a cozy retreat.
If you are burned out, and the surrounding hills and mountains are denuded by fire, remember that old forester's adage: "In 300 years, you'll never know there was a fire here."
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