By Char Miller
As western wildfires burn through millions of forested acres, they are igniting debates about our response that are almost as heated as the flames themselves.
The leaders of the U.S. Forest Service have known that fire begets discord since 1905, when Gifford Pinchot became the federal agency’s first chief. Randy Moore, who was sworn in as the 20th chief on July 26, is no stranger to the conflict, after his decade-long service as the agency’s regional forester for California. Since 2017, that fire-prone state — and its many national forests — have endured its eight largest fires ever.
Despite his extensive experience, Moore probably did not expect to be burned even before assuming his new post. But he was, courtesy of a lightning-struck, smoldering pine rooted in a granite-rough ridge in the Humboldt-Toiyabe National Forest in early July.
When the fire was spotted, Forest Service personnel determined there was no immediate danger of fire spread. They would monitor it. But for the health of the forest, where fire is regenerative, and for reasons of resource management and firefighter safety, this was the kind of fire they wouldn’t move immediately to put it out.
A week later, gusting winds fanned sparks outward, and what came to be known as the Tamarack fire has been burning ever since. Although the 68,000-acre blaze now is more than 80% contained, there has been no containing the resulting fight that erupted over the initial handling of the fire.
Angry California and Nevada politicians attacked the Forest Service’s decision not to extinguish the smoking tree. On July 20, Rep. Tom McClintock demanded that the outgoing chief retract the “current U.S. Forest Service direction that allows wildfires to burn and instruct all Regional Foresters that all wildfires should be suppressed as soon as possible.”
Moore responded with a memo Aug. 2. He conceded that in a “fire year different from any before” the Forest Service should stop managing fires for “resource benefit” — that is, to improve ecosystem health — and instead suppress them. “We are in a ‘triage mode,’” he wrote, and the agency’s focus now “must be on fires that threaten communities and infrastructure.” This was, he concluded, the most “prudent course of action now in a situation that is dynamic and fluid.”
Moore’s “prudent course … now” language, however, isn’t prudent enough for some. The National Wildfire Institute, a suppression-friendly bloc of retired Forest Service officials, said the initial Tamarack decision bore the “hallmarks of criminal negligence.” “It’s time,” they wrote in a letter to Moore, “to declare that all fires will be promptly and aggressively extinguished, period.”
But other Forest Service veterans disagree, urging the new chief to reverse his Aug. 2 directive.