Fires and Politics

When there was a move to turn federal lands over to the state one of the refrains was that the state could not afford to fight fires. The response was that if they fought fires like the public land agencies that was true. Recent events support that statement.

The recent fire near Wild Horse Reservoir is a classic example. This fire started by lightning and at last report had burned more than 230,000 acres. Locals believe the fire could have been contained several days ago but inaction prompted its spread.

Offers of help from locals reportedly was rejected. Many believe that when the fire reached the Mountain City Highway just north of Wild Horse it could have been stopped with prompt action. According to local reports, there were three helicopters standing by with a large reservoir adjacent. Had they been allowed to start operation at sunup, the fire most likely could have been stopped.

However, by the time they received the authorization, it was nearing mid-day and smoke reduced visibility to the point they remained grounded. Other reports indicate that ground equipment also remained idle. It was almost as if they did not want to stop the fire. If you don’t believe me, look at the Elko newspaper.

This fire affected numerous grazing operations on both private and public lands. It had an obvious effect on many ranchers. I know this first-hand because my son, who is just starting out with his own cattle, was one who was burned out. For any cattle owner who loses grazing, it is a hardship. For one just starting out, it can be devastating.

If you think this is just sour grapes on my part, stories like this abound across the state. I can name several instances from first- and second-hand experience. When you think about it, there is no incentive for public fire operations to wrap a fire up early. Big fires get publicity, which means publicity and more money for next year. It facilitates purchase of multi-million dollar eight-wheel drive behemoth machines with run-flat tires that when fully manned cost nearly as much to operate per hour as a helicopter.

Fire has become political. We have been blessed with California’s smoke crap for weeks. Their governor blames climate change for causing their wildfire epidemic. That is completely unfounded.

One million acres have burned this year in California. According to the National Interagency Fire Center (NIFC), they average 8,000 wildfires per year. From 1910 to the present, 95 percent are man-caused. Since 1980 California’s population has increased by 67 percent. If wildfires are the terrible new normal as the governor claims, fires should have increased accordingly.

Yet according to the NIFC, the number of California fires thus far are below the 10-year average and have burned less area. If man-caused climate change is causing the fires, shouldn’t there be more fires and more area burned? I guess facts don’t matter when an issue is politicized.

The truth is that most of the damage caused by today’s fires in California is due to encroachment on what is called the wildland urban interface. That means that more and more houses are being built on the edges of land that have historically had limited human impact. That, combined with California’s temperate climate plus dry summers causes what is called by experts the worst fire climate in the world.

This is not intended to slight those firefighters who stand in harm’s way for structure fires and protecting other valuable assets. My complaints are targeted at public land agencies who seem to need a planning meeting, then a safety meeting, then hearing from another supervisor before they can take action. By the time a decision is made the best time to fight a range fire, early morning, is long past.

Here is one anecdote. A few years ago, the Eureka County Road Department took equipment to a large fire in their county. BLM tried to deny them access, which they ignored. The road crew cut a firebreak along a county road easement and stopped the fire’s progress while BLM was still at their rendezvous point trying to find ways to have them arrested.

Thus my statement that fires have become politicized. Whether it is California Gov. Brown trying to advance a climate change agenda or public land agencies angling for more publicity and money, the incentives to actually prevent fires or limit their extent and damage is low. Political gamesmanship goes on while the victims suffer.

Tom Riggins’ column appears every other Wednesday. He may be reached at


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