present problems in fire control must be placed in historical context.
The Federal Government assumed the role of “Land Manager” very early in
the Nations history. The Land Order of 1785 and the Northwest Ordinance
of 1787 set the doctrine that land gained by territorial expansion should
be disbursed to the people. Two schools of thought have been evident since
those times. A simplified version of the contrasting views can be described
in terms of the ideals of Henry David Thoreau (early 1800's) and John Muir
(late 1800's) as one view. This view is contrasted with the expressed wishes
of the Congress and the Administrative Branch of the Federal Government.
The first view might be characterized as “Leave the Federal Lands alone
and let Nature take its course.” The second view might be characterized
as “The Federal Lands contain resources that the people need and should
be managed to provide those resources in perpetuity.”
The United States Forest Service (USFS) was created by Congress in 1905. Congress directed that the USFS was “to provide a continuing source of Timber, Forage and Water for the benefit of the people of the United States.” Gifford Pinchot (the first Chief of the USFS) and John Muir carried out a very public discourse on the path that the USFS should take. Pinchot decided to base the management on Scientific Principles and set the organization on the path mandated by Congress. The issue of the response to wildfires continued to be a source of disagreement both within and without the organization until 1910. In 1910 a series of forest fires destroyed an estimated five million acres of forest and took many lives. In large areas of Idaho and Montana the forest still has not recovered from those fires.
There is a strong tendency for people to simplify arguments and take extreme positions in their response to a complex problem. This is especially true in the face of opposition. Starting from the view that the forests should be preserved, the USFS set out to put out fires when they were detected. The opposition continued to argue that fires were a part of nature and that fires should be allowed to burn no matter what the consequences. One result of the environmental movement of the 1960's and 1970's was to shift management practice with respect to wildfires. The terrible consequence of poorly planned and executed prescribed fires was demonstrated by the Cerro Grande Fire at Los Alamos New Mexico in 2000.
The evolution of the fire control organization is examined in some detail. Points are emphasized by examples from the experience of the author and by the evidence presented in the photographic record.