Tuesday, July 02, 2013

Some Questions for Smokey Bear

Many of us grew up with a familiar image of that avuncular cartoon bear with Smokey on his ranger hat, who made the famous admonition: "Remember, only you can prevent forest fires."

Revisionism has since shown fairly clearly that good old Smokey was really a stooge for the logging industry and its handmaiden, the U.S. Forest Service, peddling a line that basically allowed our forest-management and wildfire-fighting budgets to be commandeered in the service of industry.

Logging aside, the main question at hand this summer is, to what extent do our wildfire management efforts actually help create the conditions that lead, for example, to the horror just seen in Yarnell, Arizona, where a voracious sudden wildfire killed 19 firefighters over the weekend, in the worst tragedy for firefighters since the terrorist attacks on the World Trade Center in 2001.

  We'll return to this anon, but immediately, the media ought to be asking a few pertinent questions. But the media are not, of course, because feelings are what drive media disaster and heinous crime coverage these days. Feelings, not rationality. Hence the questions are not even being asked:

Here are a few just off the top of my head:

--The tragically doomed Granite Mountain Interagency Hotshot Crew were unusual in that they were "municipally funded," we are told by reporters who don't seem to be curious enough to ask the obvious question: Where did this funding come from to form a municipal crew? Surely, a small town budget can't accommodate this kind of effort. Oh, wait a minute! Can we hear from our old pals at F.E.M.A.?  See here.

Is anybody watching over F.E.M.A. these days?

While we're at it, how much of that municipal funding also might have been channeled from the copious flow of federal Homeland Security money that has, for example, turned some small-city police departments into quasi commando units complete with tanks and S.W.A.T. teams that are turned out for the kind of piddling disturbances that two town cops and a squad car used to handle? How good is the training, and who supplies it?

--Overall, ss this a justifiable use of federal emergency funding? Who is watching over the budgets and how the dough is actually spent? (Certainly not the media)

--Whatever the funding, given its clear municipal, small-town oversight, how much training did this brave  crew have? How good was that training? Who supervised the training, and was there qualified oversight? Who supplied the training? In other words, who made money from supplying this training? Who are they, specifically, and what is their game?

--Federally, what about the Forest Service budget? A large portion of the money that used to be spent on sensible Forest Service work such as maintenance and culling has disappeared, at the same time as we're spending breathtaking sums on Homeland Security and on, say, doubling the number of agents in the already wildly overstaffed Border Patrol and sending $40 billion or so more to the military contractors who are lined up with their tin cups to filled by their benefactors in Congress piously talking about building secure hjgh-tech fences, which, who would have guessed it, the military contractors just happen to wish to supply! So let's have a good look at the Forest service budget and where it's actually going -- and always, as the district attorney says, cui bono?

--Are we crazy enough to continue a policy that says, during a forest fire, all structures in the area -- that is, homes and businesses -- must be protected at all costs? The media love to breathlessly report on the number of "structures" damaged or destroyed in wildfires, as if that's the absolute priority. But all over the wildfire-prone West, these "structures" were heedlessly placed in fire-prone areas. That is, areas where the tendency is for sections of forests to occasionally burn, as a natural sequence that actually regenerates growth in a natural process. To what extent should our intrepid firefighters be placed in mortal peril, because some people want to live or do business in places where the likelihood of an eventual forest fire is very, very strong?

--Will the media ever smarten up on this and start looking at the money?  Or will feelings and emotions continue to prevail over science and common sense?

UPDATE: High Country News, the excellent magazine of the West, is starting to ask the right questions.


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