Lessons From the Fire

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Lessons From the Fire

by Ari Armstrong, June 19, 2002

I approach the topic of Colorado's wildfires with humility, respect and appreciation for those fighting the blazes, and concern for those at risk. I have a few observations about the fire, and a lot of questions. Readers with well-developed arguments are welcome to submit them for the web page.

Government agents have responded efficiently to the fire, by all accounts I've heard. The firefighters as well as local law enforcement have basically done a good job. [Note: After I wrote this, I got an e-mail written by Kent McNaughton that raises new questions about the government's response. That important e-mail is reproduced below.]

However, the Hayman fire also makes obvious the point that government officials are not always perfect. Sometimes, some of them have shortcomings of morality or competence. Apparently an employee of the U.S. Forest Service, Terry Barton, started the fire. She claims she was burning a letter from her estranged husband. Some investigators doubt her story. Others have suggested she might have wanted to play hero by starting a fire and putting it out. The worst case scenario is that she intentionally set the fire for the purpose of causing major damage. I hope that's not what happened.

Barton's job was to make sure others didn't start fires in high-risk areas. Whatever her motivations, she started such a fire, and the result was devastating: 120,000 burned acres, over 200 square miles, around 40 buildings destroyed, more than 2,000 firefighters on the scene, and a firefighting cost already approaching $10 million (Rocky Mountain News).

Of course, Barton is just one person out of a very large organization. And other fires around the state were apparently started by careless tourists. Still, in general we ought not put our blind faith in government agents, and the basis of our society should be personal responsibility, not reliance on the state. We can look to the ongoing charity, voluntary assistance, and neighbor helping neighbor as a testament to personal responsibility.

Is there a way to prevent forest fires of this magnitude? In a June 12 editorial, the News writes, "There are basically two ways we can respond. We can wait for the next Hayman-like fire, or we can manage the forests with controlled burns and by thinning trees." Indeed, some representatives of the Forest Service have been advocating those policies for years, the News tells us. So why haven't such policies taken effect? The News quotes Congressman Tom Tancredo, who blames the mess on a "bureaucratic logjam mentality."

On June 13, the News published a story titled, "Genesee hailed as model for fire prevention." The town of Genesee has thinned its open space and allowed property owners to thin trees on their lands. Libertarians will argue that the local government never should have prevented property owners from thinning trees. Of course, there remains the possibility of market covenants that restrict such activities. According to the story in the News, the government was originally enforcing rules most residents demanded, and government agents encouraged the residents to adopt better fire prevention strategies.

Still, on average, private property owners tend to make wiser decisions than government property managers, simply because of the incentive structure. Property owners bear the costs and reap the benefits of their management practices, whereas government agents are insulated from such concerns. Several years ago I proposed a plan that still makes sense to me: sell off half of all government land and give half to the Sierra Club or some combination of conservation groups.

Private property owners, too, are sometimes insulated from the consequences of their actions. Why did Governor Owens claim "all of Colorado is burning?" Perhaps he wanted to make sure those federal funds kept flowing. Owens' Democratic challenger criticized the governor for his remarks, and, according to the Rocky Mountain News, Congressman Mark Udall said June 18, "Mr. Speaker, I rise to announce that Colorado is open for business... [T]he fires are burning only in 1 percent of the state and much of our beautiful state has not been affected by fire."

The federal government should not be involved in these matters. If Americans across the nation choose to give donations to help fight fires in Colorado, that's great, but they should not be forced to do so. Ultimately, people who live in high-risk areas should pay more in insurance costs. Then, they'd have more of an incentive to prevent fires before they get out of hand.

I asked the state LP's Outreach Director Michael McKinzie about his views on the fire. McKinzie evacuated his home. He said, "The national response was, of course, first-rate. How could it be improved? IMHO- Militia. Overcome the entrenched attitude that one needs any type of certification to drive an Idiot Stick. Make the Professional Fire-Fighters into Supervisors, and take every able-bodied volunteer you can get, and put their willing ass on the fire line. Secondly, I was kept out of my house by a JeffCo roadblock, not any fire. This seems fundamentally wrong to me."

Perhaps McKinzie is correct that there has been too much reliance on the "experts" and not enough reliance on citizen initiative. And I tend to agree that evacuations should always be voluntary. The June 19 News ran an article titled, "Teller County rancher runs roadblock to save his home." Kayo Armentrout ran a roadblock in Jefferson County to bring water to his property. He said, "The government started this fire and they're not putting it out. So we're making a stand to try to save what's ours." The News reports, "All day long, he and a few friends used a bulldozer to build an earthen fire line around the five or six structures on his property. He figured they have trucked in about 70,000 gallons of water to his ranch." Certainly the government should not spend resources to stop such activity.

My tentative conclusion, then, is that huge fires can largely be prevented through a combination of better fire management and better ways to tap the resources of the citizenry. Ultimately, we ought to move away from socialized forest management to a market system. It's a tragedy that the government's own experts were prevented from taking the actions they knew would prevent fires, and such tragedies are less likely given the incentive structure of the free market.

E-mail from Kent McNaughton, dated June 19, 2002

I have followed up a rumor which turns out to be true: the US Forest Service has turned down heavy earth-moving equipment, offered--for free--to fight the largest fire in Colorado's history because "...It'll tear up the land."

Ron Largent (719-689-4042), Operations Mgr. for Anglo Gold Mining in Cripple Creek CO, after being contacted by Rep Joel Hefley's (R-CO) office (719-520-0055), volunteered 11 pieces of massive earthmoving equipment to dig firebreaks at Colorado's 130,000 acre Hayman fire. The Pueblo office of the US Forest Service indicated that it could use three of these: two Caterpillar D10 dozers and one D8 dozer. The 600HP D10 has an 18' blade and is 6' or 7' tall. It can root up large trees in its way.

Denver's Ames Construction (719-689-5531) brought in two massive transporters to transport the earthmovers, one from Utah, the other from Kansas. The two companies shared the $5000 cost of the move.

Workers from Anglo Gold and Ames Construction moved this equipment to the Lake George base camp on Thursday afternoon, June 13th. The equipment had crews from the mine and were capable of 24/7 operation--just as they are at the mines. Together, they could have cut a swath 35' wide across the front of the fire from Lake George to Woodland Park, about 20 miles, by today, Wednesday. This compared with a 2' wide hand line dug with axes by front-line firefighters that 11 days later streches less than 10 miles in front of this flank of the fire. The remaining perimeter from Florissant to Divide to Woodland Park still, as of Tuesday night was termed "uncontrolled" by the Forest Service.

The equipment was turned down by the Incident Commander (at the time) Kim Martin, of the Forest Service. Martin is reputed to have told Ron Largent "The equipment is too heavy. It'll tear up the land."

When confronted with this objection, Largent committed his company to reclaim the land and replant trees when the fire is over.

After an overnight stay, on Friday morning the equipment was transported back to the mine. The miners and families in Cripple Creek are seething over the wasted effort, knowing they could have helped but were stymied by the US Forest Service.

Today--seven days later--it was announced that the Army from Fort Carson will be providing much smaller D4 dozers to try to clear a firebreak.

I am a homeowner in the area threatened by this fire the Forest Service calls "a monster." I'm incensed that the Forest Service has decided to fight the fire with gloves on.

They are fighting a bear with a pea shooter. They need a rifle and when it was offered they declined it.

The fire rages on. Only wind direction is preventing it from entering towns and cities on Colorado's Front Range.

Kent McNaughton
Crystola CO

PS: And I won't even go on about the Russian 11,000 gallon fire bomber that was offered for $8000/day and refused. Our biggest can dump 3000 gallons. (I understand one of the excuses was "We can't be wasting water! There's a drought here.") Go figure.

PPS: I have nothing but respect and admiration for the front-line firefighters and their supervisors. However, the strategy for fighting these big fires is either in need of overhaul, with tree-huggers out of the conversation, or needs to be better explained to the many of us mountain bumpkins who feel that in the face of a huge fire, all substantial available resources need to be employed.

The Colorado Freedom Report--www.FreeColorado.com