McCALL, Idaho - Western public lands, including the Payette National Forest in Idaho, the Gila National Forest in southwestern New Mexico and the Bitterroot National Forest that straddles the Montana-Idaho border, have become "let-it-burn laboratories," federal wildfire managers say.
Sparse populations surrounding those forests make it possible to pursue some of the nation's most progressive fire management policies.
An increasing number of wildfire managers are letting more lightning-caused fires on federal land burn, to help return forests to their natural state where wildfire and trees survived in equilibrium before modern man's arrival. The policy also keeps firefighters from harm's way - and could save millions of dollars otherwise spent fighting fires miles far from civilization.
Environmental advocates favor these changes, saying they let Mother Nature take her course- even as some forest communities fear allowing more fires to burn is a recipe for disaster.
The 1988 firestorm in Yellowstone National Park that torched 1.2 million acres was one turning point, emboldening fire managers who were already arguing that battling every drought- or wind-fueled fire in the West was an exercise in futility.
Sam Hescock, a U.S. Forest Service regional fire manager on the Payette National Forest north of Idaho's capital, remembers a key turning point in his forest: It was July 1996, and a dry lightning storm rolled over the Frank Church-River of No Return Wilderness, igniting a remote wildfire. He told firefighters to hold off - to the chagrin of some forest bosses.
"They told me, 'Sam, we normally don't let those things go until Aug. 15. In July, we just don't do that,' " Hescock recalls. "I told them, 'Then you hired the wrong person.' "
Last year, fighting wildfires cost $1.3 billion when a record 9.8 million U.S. acres burned. Twenty-four wildland firefighters died. A study by the National Interagency Fire Center in Boise concluded that a wildland fire costs $43 an acre to monitor, compared with suppression fires where bills can run as high as $250 an acre.
"The benefit is safety and a lot of economics," Hescock said. "What happens if we crash an airplane or hurt a smokejumper on a fire miles from nowhere? What do we tell the parents? Why not just have a fire scar out there?"
"A vast majority of agency personnel, whether it's Forest Service, National Park Service, or Bureau of Land Management, now appreciate the important role that fire plays in the landscape," said George Wuerthner, author of "Fire Ecology: A Century of Failed Forest Policy."
"Most of the people in the agencies are recognizing we can't put out all the fires," Wuerthner said. "We don't have the resources to do it, and with climate change, it's getting harder to put out fires."
Residents cry foul
That's easy for faraway officials to say, contend residents of Idaho's deep-woods hamlets such as Yellow Pine or Secesh, who are surrounded by wildfires every summer. Their fear: the policy could lead to disaster if a wildland fire once deemed harmless gets out of control.
Margaret Cooper runs the Winter Inn in Warren, just northeast of McCall, where she's lived since 1970.
Cooper believes efforts to suppress many of the area's fires have grown less aggressive as the Forest Service becomes more comfortable with allowing some fires to burn.
"It used to be, they didn't let anything burn. And now they're going to let it all burn in a few years," Cooper said. "The firefighters that are in there trying to help us are doing a very good job of it. We're not mad at them, it's the policy that's handed down to them."
"We want to use the fire, instead of spending large amounts of money suppressing it, while at the same time protecting private property," said Tim Sexton, the Forest Service's fire use program manager at the National Interagency Fire Center in Boise. "Any time we suppress a natural ignition, it allows fuels to continue to accumulate. Sooner or later, it's going to burn so intensely that some of our options will be compromised in being able to protect those homes."