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Western wildfires – horrific, devastating … and unnecessary

By Paul Driessen
web posted July 30, 2012

Millions of Americans watched their evening news in horrified fascination.

The Colorado Springs wildfire had doubled in size overnight, to 24 square miles – half the size of San Francisco – as 50-mph gusts carried fiery branches from exploding treetops across fire breaks, down Waldo Canyon and into fresh stands of drought-dried timber. Flames crested the ridge above the beautiful Air Force Academy campus, 346 houses burned, hundreds more faced immolation, and 32,000 people were evacuated, through smoke and ash that turned daytime into a choking night sky.

130 miles north, another monster fire west of Fort Collins consumed 136 square miles of forest and torched 259 homes. By July 4, this year's Colorado forest fires had devoured 170,000 acres – 265 square miles, nearly five times the size of Washington, DC. Across eleven western states, nearly 2,000,000 acres have already burned this year; imagine all of Delaware and Rhode Island ablaze.

People died. Many homes are now nothing but ashes, chimneys and memories. In the forests, the infernos exterminated wildlife habitats, roasted eagle and spotted owl fledglings alive in their nests, boiled away trout and trout streams, left surviving birds and mammals to starve for lack of food, and incinerated every living organism in the thin soils, presaging massive erosion that will clog streambeds during downpours and snowmelts. Many areas will not recover their foliage or biodiversity for decades.

Having hiked in many of these areas, I've been truly depressed by these infernos. Why were they allowed to happen? "We are doing everything possible to control these blazes," officials insist. One has to wonder.

Put aside the insanity of letting horse-blindered environmentalists, bureaucrats and judges obstruct even selective cutting to thin dense stands of timber or remove trees killed by beetles, after decades of Smoky the Bear management. Forget for a moment that these policies turn forests into closely bunched matchsticks, waiting for lightning bolts, sparks, untended campfires or arsonists to start conflagrations.

Ignore the guideline that say fires in these areas can be extinguished if they are of human origin (if making that distinction is even possible in the midst of an inferno) – but must be allowed to burn if they are "natural" (caused by lightning, for example), even amid droughts, in the hope that they won't become raging infernos that threaten homes. Disregard the crazy jurisdictional disputes that prevent aircraft from dropping water on a fire, because the crew cannot tell whether the blaze is on Bureau of Land Management or Forest Service land.

Pay no mind to the fact that these fires emit prodigious amounts of carbon dioxide – along with large quantities of mercury, particulates and other pollutants. (Many rock formations contain mercury; trees absorb it through their roots, and release it into the atmosphere when they burn.)

Once a fire erupts, there is no reason it should devastate homes, suburban developments or vast forest areas. The technology exists to stop these fires, long before they reach such intensities and proportions.

Two days before Waldo Canyon burst into flames, a revolutionary fire suppressant stopped a 300-acre fire north of Albuquerque, New Mexico almost in its tracks. Just nine single-engine planeloads of FireIce (about 7,200 gallons) were needed to douse the flames, prevent nearby trees and homes from igniting, and insure that the fire remained permanently extinguished.

Dutch Snyder, the independent 27-year veteran fire-fighting pilot whose airplane handled this successful mission, remarked afterward that he had "never seen a retardant hold a fire line" so well, or "any product knock down a fire so quickly."

According to its inventor, GelTech Solutions chief technology officer Peter Cordani, FireIce smothers fires, by taking heat and oxygen away from combustible materials. It can be dropped directly onto a fire, penetrating through to burning trees and brush – rather than just being dropped far from flames, in often futile efforts to create fire breaks that hold.

As many news outlets, like Fox 21 KXRM-TV in Colorado Springs, have documented in recent years (visit the GelTech website for video clips), this product can be dropped by plane to suppress wildfire intensity, or sprayed by homeowners on houses and landscaping to protect them from heat and flames. Even a 2,000-degree F blowtorch cannot ignite a wood board (or burn a human hand) coated in FireIce.

The product is non-toxic, non-corrosive and environment-friendly, Cordani says in the news stories. It's been tested, certified and approved by the US Forest Service, which has FireIce and GelTech on its "qualified products list" of fire-battling chemicals and professionals. The company maintains its own state-of-the-art mixing equipment and is ready at a moment's notice to assist aerial and ground fire-fighting operations anywhere in the USA. It can fill trucks and airplanes of any size, including 3,000-gallon Air Force C-130s and even 10,000-gallon DC-10 supertankers.

Duly impressed, I called the company to ask what role it was playing in fighting the Colorado blazes and why its technology apparently was not working. The answer shocked me. It had not been asked to help!

Despite all the news stories about FireIce, its certification by the USFS, and frequent communications between GelTech and federal, state and local officials – no one had contacted the company.

How is that possible? What will it take to persuade officials to break from traditional (and obviously inadequate) wildfire tactics and retardants, and use FireIce to combat what Colorado Springs Fire Chief Rich Brown called fires of "epic proportions" – to protect homes, habitats, wildlife and human lives?

New Mexico has now used FireIce with great success against several forest fires. With a long fire season still ahead, perhaps US Forest Service Chief Tom Tidwell, Rocky Mountain Regional Forester Dan Jiron, Colorado Governor John Hickenlooper, Fort Collins and Colorado Springs Mayors Karen Weithunat and Steve Bach will now follow the example set by Governor Susana Martinez and her colleagues in the Land of Enchantment.

If they do not, responsible legislators and environmentalists should find out why – so that tragedies like these Colorado fires never happen again. ESR

Paul Driessen is senior policy advisor for the Committee For A Constructive Tomorrow, a ten-year Colorado resident, legislative aide for former US Senator Bill Armstrong of Colorado, former policy analyst for the US Department of the Interior, and author of Eco-Imperialism: Green power - Black death.

 

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