Back in August, Harper’s magazine had a couple of articles about wildfires, forest management, and the way culture and politics sometimes makes doing the right thing difficult or impossible. I thought they were extremely interesting. This one was about the severe fires in Portugal in 2017, and had a lot to say about just how bad it is to be caught in a fire. This one was about the American West, and was more about policy and politics.
Trump’s probably right when he cites poor forest management. But as often happens, the truth, coming from that man’s mouth, emerges via a tunnel of decaying ironies so pungent that the truth itself stinks to high heaven; it conceals more than it reveals.
The agency in charge of forest management is, after all, the Forest Service. A federal agency. An executive-branch federal agency. Trump’s own agency.
And the influential members of the public who insist that the Forest Service must continue to throw blood and treasure away on failed forest management policies, are, overwhelmingly, conservatives. GOP members. Trump supporters.
Here is an excerpt from that second article, “Combustion Engines,” by Richard Manning.
[Wiser, expert-recommended] policies, however, are toxic in the current political climate of the West. One can identify a conservative here simply by mentioning wildfire and waiting for the inevitable argument: “The Forest Service needs to put these fires out.” And the Forest Service does just that, as it has done for decades. (The agency, along with other federal entities and state and local crews, extinguishes about 90 percent of the many thousands of fires that occur each year on what is called initial attack, an all-out lights-and-sirens response the moment a fire is reported.) The conservatives who populate the canyons, gulches, and dead-end roads at the fringes of Western valleys are quick to put aside their customary laments about government overreach when it comes to spending billions to protect their own redoubts.
To firefighters who have faced the issue head-on, the irony is exquisite. In one neighborhood, the Lolo Peak fire was emphatically punctuated with confrontations between firefighters and open-carry advocates, the latter expressing their disapproval of the feds by packing pistols, displaying yard signs castigating Forest Service “liberals” and blaming the government for a natural disaster. They went as far as welcoming local and state firefighters while accosting federal employees, even though they all served under the same command.
Mike DeGrosky, the fire chief for Montana’s Department of Natural Resources and Conservation, told me that firefighters had to move a camp out of one ranching town at the eastern edge of the Bob Marshall after being harassed by locals. “There were people . . . who were aggressive and angry toward the fire people,” he said. They would drive into the camp to find firefighters trying to catch some sleep or doing jobs like repairing equipment in camp. “Get off your asses, go out there, put the fire out,” DeGrosky quoted them.