Friday, August 21, 2015

Why the U.S. is asking Canada and Australia for firefighting help

Aug. 19, 215

William Brangham speaks to Ron Dunton, assistant director for Fire and Aviation at the Bureau of Land Management, about efforts to contain the staggering number of fires burning in the West this summer.

WILLIAM BRANGHAM: For more on how fire officials are coping with these many fires, we turn to Ron Dunton. He’s with the Bureau of Land Management. And he is helping coordinate fire response at the National Interagency Fire Center in Boise, Idaho.

Ron Dunton, thanks for being here.

That math that we showed before is pretty staggering. There are so many fires burning out West. How do you compare this to prior fire seasons?

RON DUNTON, Assistant Director for Fire and Aviation, Bureau of Land Management: This is a big year.

As mentioned, we haven’t deployed military since 2008, and that’s a good sign that our internal system is being overwhelmed. We’re essentially out of federal firefighting resources. We are having to tap in with regular troops from the United States Army. We’re also bring in Canadian resources and we’re just now reaching out to Australia and New Zealand to bring in fire personnel from those two countries.

So it’s a very big year. We’re at our — what we refer to as preparedness level five, which is our highest level of national preparedness.


We’re having to reprioritize working at protecting communities, protecting the public, so that — letting some fires — I won’t say just letting them do go, but less priority on fires that aren’t threatening anything in terms of firefighter or public safety.

WILLIAM BRANGHAM: How much of this is because we have more and more people living in more remote areas? I mean, is that a concern for people who have to manage this vast wilderness?

RON DUNTON: Absolutely.

A lot of the fires would be much simpler to deal with, other than the fact that people have moved in into what we refer to as the wildland-urban interface. It causes significant difficulties. Again, as I stated earlier, you know, our first priority is our firefighter and the public safety.

So we have to expend resources helping to evacuate people when we should be fighting the fire, or, in some cases, fires that could be left to burn naturally, we can’t allow that because the communities have spread out.


WILLIAM BRANGHAM: You mentioned that some of these fires might be left to burn. Is that because you don’t have enough personnel or is that because, as some people have argued, it’s a good idea to burn out this underbrush, to clear out some of that tinder for these fires for the future?

RON DUNTON: So, there’s no question that fire is beneficial in some ecosystems.

And where possible, we will allow a fire to run its natural course. But if you have communities and/or houses in the way that have built up, then that becomes impossible. We can also then deal with what we refer to as prescribed fire, where, under certain conditions, we will go light a fire and carefully manage it.

But in terms of utilizing natural fire, we have to be very careful because of the spread of communities.

WILLIAM BRANGHAM: I mean, obviously, this drought has caused enormous problems for firefighters like yourself. It obviously makes everything very, very dry out there. But does it cause a problem for you as far as access to water? Do you have enough water that you need to fight the fires with?

RON DUNTON: Yes, I wouldn’t say water is the issue.

Drought is certainly a big issue. We have had lots of engines that carry their own water. We have water sources that we can access. So I probably wouldn’t go to water as being a limiting factor to us. But drought stress fuel certainly is causing extreme fire behavior. Extreme fire behavior is becoming the norm.


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