"Let it burn" versus "put it out."

50,000 acre Hog-Fong Fire. Klamath National Forest 1977
When I worked for the Forest Service back in the 1970’s, we put out ALL fires. Big ones, little ones, ones started by lightning, ones started by humans. Total fire suppression back then was still considered essential. Not only that, but a 50,000 acre fire was considered monumental.

Within ten years however, biologists had a new take on fire ecology. Without fire, forests grew thick and impenetrable. So thick, that when a fire did start, huge conflagrations (hundreds of thousands of acres) engulfed forests leaving nothing but sterile soil and little hope of recovery.

The “let it burn” policy was implemented in the 1980’s. The idea was to let fires burn naturally if they were caused by natural events and if they threatened no people, homes or other structures. This all sounded good on paper. In practice, though, not so good. In fact it’s proven to be nearly impossible to implement. Why? Because we’ve been putting fires out for so long, the idea of “Oh, just let it burn itself out” ends up creating catastrophic fires that can’t be put out at all. Most wildfires now either die out because there’s nothing left to burn, they are rained out, or they meet up with natural firebreaks such as large expanses of rock or pavement.

A prime example is what happened in 1988 to Yellowstone National Park after summer storms sparked multiple blazes. Because these fires were lightning caused, officials chose to monitor them instead of fight them. However, high winds, added to a drought-stressed landscape, in no time caused 150,000 acres to disappear in twenty-four hours. Nearly 10,000 firefighters were dispatched, but even they couldn’t contain the monster. It took months to put the fires completely out, but not until over a million acres were scorched and 120 million dollars were spent.

Fire officials had to admit the “let it burn” plan wasn’t working.

In 2009 a new policy was introduced. Instead of letting fires burn or putting them all out, a more logical approach is in practice. It took that long for officials to figure out that we don’t have that much wilderness left to let fires burn. I’ve been saying that for years! Now they are looking at all of the components affecting the decision to fight the fire or not, including the encroaching of humans on wilderness edges.

Let’s face it, who wouldn’t jump at the chance to build a home with a protected forest in your backyard if you could afford to? What people don’t understand, however, is this comes with a price. Just like those who build in hurricane, flood, tornado or earthquake territory: you have to be prepared for loss. What’s different about building adjacent to wilderness areas is those homeowners expect the Government to protect their homes from a wildfire, when they really have no right to. The tragic part is that although wildland firefighters are not trained in structural firefighting, they want to help, and some have lost their lives trying to save private structures.

Then there is the public outcry over the loss of our precious National Forests and Parks, which I think has validity. Should we really be letting what little we have left go up in smoke? It’s not like there is plenty of scenic lands left to convert into new parks. I’m looking at that scenario right outside my living room window. The 2005 Florida Fire in the Santa Rita Mountains destroyed 75% of this unique “Sky Island” when the Forest Service opted for “let it burn” instead of suppression. I’ve hiked to the burned areas recently, and recovery is spotty, if at all. Certainly I will never see majestic ponderosas and Doug firs in those areas in my lifetime. Was letting it burn a smart move, considering how few acres compose the Santa Rita range?

Because the wildland-urban interface conflict and the ‘let’s save what we’ve got’ stance are a major concern, the new policy is designed to look closer at what dictates managing a fire and when to let the fire manage itself. This is not going to be easy. Will wildland firefighters now be trained to battle structure fires? Will structural firefighters now be called to battle forest fires? Should we put out fires in areas where not putting them out can completely destroy an entire ecosystem?

I am glad a new policy is in effect, but the challenges are still great. You can’t undo 100+ years of firefighting in one fire season or many fire seasons. Fire management practices are changing and will continue to change. The focus now must be on fuel management (thinning and prescribed burns) more than fire suppression, but even that takes years to accomplish. The answers are not cut and dry, and they are not easy. In the meantime, catastrophic wildfires will continue, and millions of acres will be lost. Let’s just hope we get a handle on it all before there’s no forest left for our children’s children to enjoy.

Women firsts: Conquering Mt. Fuji and dispelling myths

It’s interesting to note that years ago, even if a woman wanted to climb Mt. Fuji, she was forbidden to do so. It wasn’t until the Meji Era ended in 1912 that the rule ended. This Era brought about a more accepting and modern culture, permitting women to participate in activities that were considered “for men only.” Despite the rule, however, one woman made it to the top in 1867, but details are sketchy. Lady Fanny Parkes is officially recorded as completing the trek.

As one legend goes, Mt. Fuji was thought to have a woman deep inside the mountain. Should she become jealous, she would erupt. This is why it is thought no Japanese woman climbed Mt. Fuji, even if she could. It took a brave Ms. Parkes to prove that no eruptions would take place if a woman set foot upon the mountain. After she did, other women soon followed suit.

Women firsts: Engineer for the construction of the Brooklyn Bridge

The Brooklyn Bridge is considered a historical monumental engineering project unlike anything built before. This bridge, spanning across the East River from New York to Brooklyn, was designed by John Roebling in 1869. Roebling’s daughter-in-law, Emily Warren Roebling, became in involved when her husband, Washington, took over after his father passed away.

Emily Roebling didn’t want to be a passive assistant. While most women would have balked at engineering studies, Emily dove into unlikely topics such as mathematics, material strengths, stress analysis and cable construction. Little did she know how valuable those classes would be. Just a few years later her husband became seriously ill, leaving him nearly paralyzed. The bridge construction fell on Emily.

Mrs. Roebling stepped right in. So perfectly, that many thought she was the Chief Engineer. Seems to me she was, even though the title was never officially bestowed upon her.

While becoming an engineer had not been part of Emily Roebling’s life plan, she became one, overseeing the completion of one of the finest examples of engineering for its time.

Is aerial firefighting worth the risk and cost?

I just read an article questioning the effects of aerial attacks on fires and whether or not they work. That concern is nothing new. Dropping slurry on fires has often been the target of public officials disputing the cost, danger and effectiveness of this form of firefighting.

Slurry is composed of mainly water and fertilizer: water to cool down flames, and fertilizer to encourage regrowth. The problem is slurry alone does not put the fire out. By the time the liquid filters through tree canopies, all you get is a fine mist with minimal coverage. Actually, the intent is to cool down the flames enough that ground crews can move in closer and build line, a cleared area to prevent the fire from advancing. Is it worth the expense? Many say it is not. However, what is interesting is that even though it is not all that effective, every year thousands of gallons of the pink mixture are dropped on wildland fires all over the Country.

So why do fire officials continue to pour millions of dollars into aerial firefighting? Turns out it’s more for the news media and the public outcry than anything else.

Take your average forest fire. News reporters are not allowed to be any closer than fire camp, and sometimes not even that close. This means no spectacular photos to plaster on the TV or newspapers. Add a dramatic slurry drop, however, and bingo! You’ve got some pretty dramatic shots that sell papers and glue people to their televisions.

The other interesting phenomenon is that the general public doesn’t feel like a fire is being fought aggressively enough if they can’t see any obvious action. Aerial firefighting provides a sense of security to people, that something is being done to protect their homes, businesses and forest.

Aerial firefighting is extremely dangerous not only to ground crews below, but to the brave pilots that fly in hazardous conditions. Steep terrain, unpredictable wind shifts and fire generated weather, all make this type of firefighting one of the most dangerous kinds of flying a pilot could face.

Will aerial slurry drops end in the near future? It’s hard to say. What’s scary is that it might take a disastrous loss of life before changes take place. The deaths of the Granite Mountain 19 shook Forest Service policies to the core, and not only is the effectiveness of the fire shelter being revisited, but so is training and procedures previously thought to be adequate.

The take-away here, at least for folks worried that government agencies aren’t fighting fires aggressively enough, is that just because you don’t see planes dropping slurry, it doesn’t mean nothing is being done.

Women firsts: The first American woman bullfighter

Patricia McCormick was so good at bullfighting, an elite Mexican bullfighter once said that had she been a man, she probably would have been a top bullfighter of her time. She wasn’t the first woman to fight bulls, there is no record of who was the very first, but she was the first American woman to do so in Mexico.

Ms. McCormick was only seven years old when she saw her first bullfight and became fascinated with the sport. She took lessons from a retired matador, debuting in 1951 in Ju├írez. It wasn’t an easy fight: the bull trampled and tossed her around before she killed him.

It’s interesting to note that while many male matadors complimented her on her bravery and talent, none were willing to sponsor her so she could become a full-fledged matador, not just an apprentice fighter. But that didn’t stop thousands of fans from attending her fights, where she refused to fight bulls on horseback. She wanted to stand before them at their level.

Ms. McCormick suffered a number of goring injuries, including a horn into her stomach and a life-threatening wound to her leg. The stomach injury was so severe, the doctor was ready to give up on her and give last rites, but she survived.

Patricia continued to fight bulls until 1962, where she retired in California to a sedentary life of artistry and secretarial work. Life didn’t treat her all that well, and she continually had money troubles. Ms. McCormick never married, and never had any children. She died at the age of 83 in a nursing home.

While bullfighting has never been of interest to me (I’ve always thought it was cruel), the fact that Ms. McCormick pursued something she wanted to do despite the odds, is what is important in this overview of her life.


Women firsts: The first woman to ride a bicycle around the world

I guess the two men who doubted Annie Kopchovsky didn’t know they were dealing with a strong-willed, determined young mother of three,how to ride a bike.
who would take on their bet that no woman could possibly bicycle around the world. These gentlemen probably figured they were pretty safe, because after all, Annie didn’t even know

What the men didn’t realize was that not knowing how to ride a bike was a minor technicality that wouldn’t stop Ms. Kopchovsky. Part of the deal was she had to earn $5000 along the way to pay expenses, and she had to finish in 15 months. Not a problem for this entrepreneurial young woman. In 1894, just a few days before she was to leave, she learned to ride a bicycle. Then, leaving Boston, she hung a sign on her bike for Londonderry Lithia Spring Water Company after they paid her $100 for advertising their products. She also agreed to change her name to Annie Londonderry for the ride.

Annie started out riding a heavy men’s bike. Upon reaching Chicago, she decided it wouldn’t work, and traded it in for a woman’s model that weighed half as much. Because no one told her what route she had to take or how many miles she had to ride, instead of proceeding west, she backtracked, and boarded a ship in New York sailing to France.

Once in France, Ms. Kopchovsky again used advertising pinned on her clothes or hung on her bike to earn money for expenses. To cross the ocean, she sailed to East Asia and eventually arrived on the west coast of the United States. It took her six months to pedal the U.S., and she arrived in Chicago in September of 1985, a shave early of the 15 months that was required to win the bet.

Annie Kopchovsky collected ten grand for succeeding, and then continued to earn extra cash by lecturing, and embellishing on, her adventures. She also wrote special features for the New York World for a while. After all the hubbub of a woman doing something so grand and unusual dwindled, she disappeared into a normal life of raising her children. Ms. Kopshovsky died in 1947.


Women firsts: Libby Riddles, winner of the Iditarod

Most people have heard of the Iditarod race. They probably know it’s a grueling trek for hardy mushers and their dogs. It’s been named the “Last Great Race on Earth”. It also was a race strictly for men, until Libby Riddles came along in 1985.

A little bit about the race: it is 1100 miles long, and traverses some pretty rough country. Mushers endure rugged mountains, ice covered rivers, thick, nearly impenetrable forests and tundra miles from civilization. Not to mention below zero temperatures and windchill enough to freeze skin solid. Why would someone want to make such a journey? It all started in the early 1900’s as an important mail route from Seward all the way to Nome, with a number of stops along the way. After dropping off the mail, mushers brought back gold. There’s much history that needs to be remembered along that trail. When Joe Redington organized this race, his goal was to preserve the legacy of the sled dog and what it has meant to Alaskan culture.

Libby Riddles came to Alaska with her boyfriend when she was only sixteen years old. They lived the homesteading kind of life, and somehow she found she had the knack to train sled dogs for locals. Then she thought to train them for her own sled, and entered the 1980 and 1981 Iditarod races. She drew much attention as the only woman, and unfortunately, for not doing well in the races. This meant no one would sponsor her. No sponsors meant no money. Life was tough on Ms. Riddles. She hunted for food, sold fur hats to feed her dogs. She had no running water or electricity.

In 1985, Ms. Riddles decided to try again. And boy, did things ever go wrong. After her sled broke, her team ran off. Her dogs got sick. Two weeks into the race, a massive blizzard hit, and the competitors had to stop and wait it out. When the storm cleared, she had a choice to quit, or keep pushing. She chose to keep going. Another blizzard hit. She still kept going. Even with temperatures at 50 below zero and a 40 mph headwind, Libby pulled ahead of everyone else. Eighteen days, 20 minutes and 17 seconds after she started, Libby Riddles crossed the finish line as the first woman to win the Iditarod.