Due to their responsibility for the Pagami creek fire, the Forest Service is an easy scapegoat right now. However, they are trapped between public expectations, ignorant politicians who tell the public sometimes outright lies and a long held, now thankfully disappearing belief that all natural processes like fire are bad.
For nearly a century after logging created the severe fires of 1910, the policy was to put all fires out. Until science showed that ecosystems are long since adapted to fire, all fire was considered evil. Finally, it is now recognized that fire is a natural ecosystem process. In recent decades, this has become an on the ground practice. The management for the Pagami creek fire is just one example. The fire, if nature had its way, would most likely have burned a similar area until the weather changed.
The idea that it is a “catastrophe” or a “tragedy” is purely a human judgment. That judgment, of course, is only because of human occupation and property.
The true tragedies lie deeper within; both in people’s assumptions about nature and our political system’s continued subsidies and allowance for human dispersal no matter what the cost. A useful corollary for fire is this: Building any structure in this landscape and not expecting fire is the same as building on a sandbar island in the Mississippi river and complaining about spring flooding while repeatedly expecting others to pay the rebuilding costs. The expectation for fire protection is similar; the Ham Lake fire cost about 11 million dollars and benefitted cabin and resort owners on the Gunflint trail. If one added the fire protection before, during and after, the bill is enormous and others (we) are paying for it. The same is true for this fire; again, the public is paying for the property protection of a few, subsidized by roads and fire protection, who choose to build structures in a fire prone landscape far from any infrastructure.
The Forest Service, like all government, is caught between reality, the delusional expectations of people and the interests of the elite who are mostly concerned with extracting as much cash money as they can from everyone, whether politicians or citizens. The Fire-Industrial complex, the system of contractors and agency employees who rely on large scale fire suppression for their existence and income simply adds inertia.
Whenever a fire occurs, there are always claims that somehow more and different management such as logging are the solution. This is not the case, however; the true costs of preventing fire on the landscape would rival a Defense Department cost plus contract and alter the ecosystem forever. Local zoning officials are as much to blame; by failing to recognize the reality of fire and not incorporating that reality into codes has as much to with any “tragedy” as someone deliberately lighting a match. The Pagami creek fire is merely the result of decades of these policy failures.
Until we recognize that nature has its own whims regardless of our desires, we will continue to pay the enormous cost that is unlimited human settlement. I don’t have the space here to list the biological costs, however, and that is where the true tragedy is.