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Fire fighting policy flip-flop at Forest Service

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Deborah Courson Smith Big Sky Connection

HELENA – For decades, the U.S. Forest Service let small fires in remote areas burn naturally in recognition that fire was part of the natural landscape – and that by letting some fires burn, future large fires could be prevented. Last year, however, every fire was battled unless granted special status.

That’s been recognized as part of the reason the Forest Service spent more than $1 billion fighting fires in 2012.

Now, the agency is taking the “fight all fires” directive off the books.

Timothy Inglesbee, executive director of Firefighters United for Safety, Ethics and Ecology, said it means flexibility in making decisions this season.

“Our response to fire has to be tailored to the conditions of the fire and our goals for the piece of ground it’s burning on,” he said.

The forest official who required all fires be suppressed in 2012 had a goal of keeping all fires small.

Inglesbee said the blanket policy of “fighting all fires” last year meant more than $425,000 was spent attacking a lightning-caused fire in the Bob Marshall Wilderness Area only one-tenth of an acre in size. Those kinds of fires previously had been allowed to burn – and will again this year.

“[This] enables fire managers to use fire to benefit the ecosystem,” he said, “especially those ecosystems that depend on or require wildfire to maintain their ecological health and integrity.”

Forest Service chief Tom Tidwell issued the decision on the policy shift for the upcoming fire season.

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