Monday, July 2, 2012

More Heat Than Light

The blackened hillsides north and west of our new home are cooling off, but local tempers not so much. Something terrible happened, and it must be somebody's fault. More particularly, it must be somebody else's fault.

When the fire was still expanding out of control, the story took hold that when a lightning strike ignited the Little Bear blaze, dimwitted Forest Service bureaucrats safe at their desks in Alamogordo decided to treat it as a "prescribed burn," an opportunity to clear away brush and deadfall the way nature intended.

Outrage spread faster than the flames. Only a moron would prescribe a hot weather burn in a forest parched by drought and pocked with stands of brown trees infested by bark beetles.

This narrative got a powerful boost when the local congressman, Steve Pearce, parachuted in to repeat it in a confrontation with Forest Service officials during a public meeting that was supposed to be about helping residents understand where flames were advancing and what was being done about it. The officials declined to engage Pearce beyond observing mildly that his accusations weren't helping to fight the fire.

That was probably a mistake. Politicians love being mouthpieces for the righteous indignation of their constituents, and of course sometimes that's their job. In this case, though, the story appears to be wrong.

Observers with more facts at hand are now saying firefighters got to the blaze quickly and did all they could to put it out. The real culprits were difficult terrain, bad conditions for water drops from the helicopters and tankers that were promptly deployed but couldn't get water directly on the flames, and the tinderbox state of the forest.

Fortunately for everyone looking for scapegoats, there are still plenty available. The most appealing are:

1. The Forest Service, for caving to decades of public pressure to suppress every fire that could remotely threaten homes and businesses as development expands ever deeper into former wilderness areas, allowing buildup of dry fuel that would otherwise be burned in smaller natural fires.

2. "Tree hugging" environmentalists whose misguided efforts to protect habitats of endangered species have thwarted rational forest management practices.

3. Congress, for cutting Forest Service budgets and depriving the agency of the resources it would need to practice controlled burning and other fuel clearing techniques, and to fight catastrophic fires more effectively.

It's a tough bundle of issues for any community located near forests, even more so for one just starting to deal with the damage and trauma of a worst-case fire.

A strong local newspaper could help a lot. So far, the semi-weekly Ruidoso News hasn't offered much more than a forum for the partially informed and the self serving.

I hope this is not where all civic conversations everywhere are heading now in the twilight of print journalism.

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