The Tamarack Fire burning near Markleeville started July 4 from a lightning strike. (Image: U.S. Forest Service)

The U.S. Forest Service’s approach to fire management is a legacy of inconsistency that has not been rooted in science, nor has it always been good for the environment, wildlife or humans.

Today, one has to question the wisdom of letting lightning started fires continue to burn in California when the state is so incredibly parched.

The Tamarack Fire burning south of South Lake Tahoe in Alpine County started July 4 from lightning. This is what the U.S. Forest Service, Humboldt-Toiyabe National Forest, which manages that area, put up on its Facebook page on July 10 at 4:20pm: “The #TamarackFire burning in the Mokelumne wilderness was ignited July 4 from lightning. The tactical management decision is not to insert fire crews due to safety concerns, however, this is not an unresponsive approach. Smoke might be visible to Pacific Crest Trail hikers but the .25 acre fire is surrounded by granite rocks, a small lake and sparse fuels. Fire poses no threat to the public, infrastructure or resource values.”

As of July 18, more than 18,000 acres had burned, with zero containment.

Officially, the Pacific Crest Trail is closed to hikers, at least two structures are gone, and the annual Death Ride bike event was canceled at the last minute; thus making it two years in a row for cyclists to be sidelined. As of June 20, Grover Hot Springs and the town of Markleeville were still standing.

Why would anyone think it a good idea to let any fire burn today in California, or most anywhere in the West for that matter? This is unconscionable. This is dangerous. This is irresponsible. Whoever made this decision needs to be held accountable.

The map of the Tamarack Fire as of July 18. (Image: National Interagency Fire Center)

The Lake Tahoe region was experiencing record heat at this time. Several fires were already raging in the state. Resources were being tapped. WHY?, I scream, would anyone decide to let a fire burn this summer?

I completely understand the benefits of fire, so don’t even go there.

The state is in a severe drought. Who knows when significant rain will fall again.

The fuels for wildland fires are tinder dry; to the point they are practically explosive. Weather experts have forecast dangerous fire weather for California and Oregon through at least July 19.

2021 could be a record year for fires in many categories. According to the National Interagency Fire Center as of July 18:

  • There have been 34,941 fire incidents this year.
  • More than 2.5 million acres have burned.
  • There are 80 large fires burning today.

The same agency reports that in 2020 there were 58,950 fires in the U.S. that burned 10,122,336 acres. Fire season usually peaks in the fall when everything is at its driest. That’s when the Camp Fire wiped out Paradise in 2018. That’s when the Wine Country seems to always burn, at least regularly since 2017.

The Forest Service, which has been around since 1905, has changed its thinking about fire through the years, which can be seen as a good thing—learning from the past, having more information to make decisions. Early on the agency wanted to suppress all fires.

According to Forest History Society, “To prevent fires, the Forest Service came out in opposition to the practice of light burning, even though many ranchers, farmers, and timbermen favored because it improved land conditions. It must be remembered that at this time foresters had limited understanding of the ecological role of fire. Forest Service leaders simply argued that any and all fire in the woods was bad because it destroyed standing timber. In 1935, the Forest Service established the so-called 10am policy, which decreed that every fire should be suppressed by 10am the day following its initial report.

“(D)uring the 1960s, scientific research increasingly demonstrated the positive role fire played in forest ecology. This led in the early 1970s to a radical change in Forest Service policy—to let fires burn when and where appropriate. It began with allowing natural-caused fires to burn in designated wilderness areas.”

The Tamarack Fire is not the first time the feds have made a mistake in how to deal with fire. Think about the 1988 fires in Yellowstone. Think about all the controlled burns that became uncontrolled infernos; there’s been several in the Lake Tahoe area. In 2019 this happened near Caples Lake.

Fire is a living, breathing phenomenon that depending on the conditions cannot be immediately controlled. The Tamarack Fire, though, could have been controlled. More important, it should have been controlled and extinguished before it became the inferno it is today. Shame on you Forest Service.

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