Fire Fighting in Wilderness

One of the concerns with the proposed Boxer-McKeon Wilderness bill is that firefighters will not be allowed to use motorized tools to work in designated wilderness areas.
Right now, the Clover fire is burning in the Southern Sierra in a designated Wilderness area. Forest Officials report that air tankers, chainsaws, and helicopters are all being used on this fire. Clearly firefighters can use mechanized tools normally banned in Wilderness areas, but there are differences between fighting a fire in a designated wilderness and areas without that designation. At least one local fire chief has concerns as well.

When we spoke to Nancy Upham with the Forest Service, she explained that fighting a fire in a Wilderness area does require additional phone calls. Normally an incident commander can call in air tankers, helicopters, and approve the use of chainsaws to cut trees down. If the fire is burning in a Wilderness area, the Forest Supervisor has to approve the use of the machines in the Wilderness.

To order a dozer to cut line in a Wilderness the regional forester has to be called, though Upham says that many wilderness areas are too steep and rocky for bulldozers.

Upham explained that while this additional level of approval sounds bureaucratic, the process is orderly and efficient. In theory, she said, there should be no delay since the dispatcher will find the approval if homes are threatened, for instance.

Most existing Wilderness areas are far enough from homes that the additional phone calls may not affect the outcome by much, but with this Boxer-McKeon Bill the Wilderness boundary would come close to communities such as Swall Meadows and parts of Crowley.

Its these closer boundaries that concern Long Valley Fire Chief Fred Stump. Chief Stump reports that he has sent a letter to McKeon asking the Wilderness boundaries to be kept at least one mile away from private land. The reasons, he said, were to allow for fuel reduction projects around the private land and allow a more diverse attack if there is a fire. Chief Stump added that the one mile boundary would also help keep fires started on private property from spreading to Wilderness areas.

Chief Stump may be in luck. When we last spoke with Bob Haueter with McKeons office he explained that the McGee Mountain portion of the bill, along with the Laurel Lakes portion near Mammoth, would likely be removed from the new Wilderness list. Haueter has said that Boxers office wont budge on the total acreage of new Wilderness meaning that if something goes, another piece of land has to be added. Right now, he reports that Table Mountain, between Aspendell and South Lake, could be back on the additional wilderness list.


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