As I was researching an article on the 50th anniversary of the Wilderness Act a few weeks back, I overheard an interesting conversation in the checkout line at our local grocery store.
Lamenting the smoky air Flagstaff was experiencing due to the Slide Fire, a wildfire burning to the southwest of us, the lady said, “I hope they get it under control soon.”
“That’s going to be hard,” the man replied. “It’s burning in a Wilderness area, and you know how that goes.” When the lady indicated she didn’t know how that goes, he went on, “No motors. They can’t fight the fire in there very well because they can’t go in with chain saws. There are all these rules to deal with.”
Once I got over being thrilled at the coincidence that something I was writing about was a subject of public discussion, I started thinking about wilderness and fire. Can the Forest Service fight fire in designated Wilderness? Are there restrictions on the tools and methods they can use? Does the extra planning and analysis slow things down? Basically, I wanted to know how the fact that a wildfire is burning in a Wilderness area might change how or when that fire is fought, as the man had said.
Jennifer Hensiek, deputy district ranger on the Flagstaff Ranger District, took the time to answer my questions.
“Basically, we use the same process for considering firefighting tools to be used in Wilderness as for other projects in Wilderness, but it happens more quickly, and I have more discretion at a lower level,” she said.
As the deputy district ranger, normally she wouldn’t have the authority to approve use of mechanized or motorized equipment in a Wilderness. But when it comes to firefighting, she’s earned that level of authority by taking a series of training courses. From the national Wilderness Stewardship Training, she learned the processes of managing Wilderness, including suppression techniques for fighting fires.
“If you fight fires, you need approval from someone with this training in order to use motorized equipment in Wilderness,” she told me.
I was glad to know that when fires in Wilderness must be fought, they can be fought smartly and swiftly. Next time I’m in the checkout line and someone brings this up, I’ll know what to say.