Our top management goal is firefighter and public safety. We also will try to protect private property and public resources. But for any fire regardless of size or location, we have to keep our crews out of harm's way as best we can.
One of the most challenging things about being a fire planner is looking at the big picture of the entire region. For example, during the 1998 fire season, we were trying to manage over 60 significant fires in Wilderness areas, for a total of 39,000 acres. Many were 1,000 acres or larger, so our resources were pretty much tapped out.
When a fire flares up, we tend to convert it from a monitor and confine to a suppression operation. As long as it stays relatively quiet, a fire can have a beneficial ecological effect without posing any real danger to people or property. But at some point you may decide that it's best to manage a fire more aggressively if it has the potential to get out of hand.
While a fire is still under 100 acres or so, you have a good chance of stopping it. Once it gets larger, you often can't do much, even with lots of resources. I realize that the public doesn't always see the logic -- people ask, "Why are you spending millions to put this one out when you've got this one burning across the ridge?"
The fires of 1988 really changed public awareness of fires. People realized that we weren't going to be able to put all of the fires out.
Smoke is another one of the biggest issues in managing fires. Normally the district rangers make the decision about whether to suppress or monitor a fire. But it's hard for them to weigh the effect of their fire on air quality farther away. Plus if you have a lot of fires going, the smoke really adds up.
People notice haze in the air before there's any kind of serious health impact. Our job as an agency is to try to minimize both nuisance impacts on visibility and threats to air quality standards that aim to protect public health.
The hardest thing is to predict how a particular season will go -- how do decide to handle a fire in June based on what it will be doing in August? We try to look at precipitation, snow packs, and long-term weather forecasts.
As we plan more prescribed burning, the public will have to decide which they want -- a lot of smoke for a short time or less smoke for a longer time. Wildfires that get big will probably make a lot of smoke, but prescribed fires will make less.
Right now the smoke from prescribed fires falls under the Clean Air Act. It counts as air pollution and we're responsive to those regulations. On the other hand, a naturally-caused fire may make a lot more smoke, but it's not regulated the same way. So we have some tough choices.
What we're trying to do with our prescribed burning projects is to reduce the fuel loads in the forest so that future fires won't be so severe. Then we will have a wider range of choices about how to manage them.