NOTHSTINE: First responders into the fire

In the wake of Hurricane Matthew in the east, and now wildfires in the west, North Carolina is fighting natural disasters on two fronts. “Geographic areas are experiencing major incidents which have the potential to exhaust all agency fire resources,” read a federal fire report for the Southeast this week. Many of the critical burn spots are in North Carolina, especially near Lake Lure, attracting wilderness firefighters from across the nation.As first responders go, many citizens are familiar with their local police force or fire department. Wildland firefighters are more unknown and underappreciated. Firefighters are often underpaid; this is no less true for some working for the federal government. The role of wilderness firefighting expanded after the Big Burn in 1910 and the Civilian Conservation Corps in the 1930s. The 1910 fire destroyed an area equivalent to the size of Connecticut in 36 hours. Currently, federal firefighting efforts fall under nine federal agencies, including the National Park Service, Bureau of Land Management, U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service, and the Bureau of Indian Affairs. Agencies and first responders show exceptional interdepartmental cooperation to prevent and fight the nation’s forest and wildfires. One of the problems that lead to the growth of forest fires is the rapid home and population expansion into the “wildland-urban interface.” This refers to the number of people and structures now expanding into fire danger zones. Increased people means more of the population as well as homes are in need of protection. Many communities and environmental groups too complain about burn measures that help prevent wildland fires. More and more firefighters are putting their lives on the line to save fixed structures. Fire agencies dramatically need more staffing and resources just to keep pace with population growth. In North Carolina, drought conditions have only exacerbated the fire threat to some of the state’s most treasured land. Conservatives and limited government advocates sometime stigmatize federal employees and agencies. However, many of the current wildland firefighters are military veterans who have served in combat and are attracted to the tight camaraderie that characterizes the job. Indeed, there is much to curtail and cut in our federal bureaucracy, and with a $20 trillion debt no agency should be immune to savings.The next Secretary of the Interior is an important appointment and will have a full plate protecting our national parks, forests, and citizenry. Wildfires too are an important reminder that the federal government is better equipped to do some things beyond the local and state level. More money and resources are needed to suppress fires. If requests are ignored, it will only end up costing the nation even more over time. It’s important to remember the first responders this holiday season, many on the front lines are wildland firefighters. They often risk their life while spending lots of time away from family and home. Mankind has always had a precarious relationship with fire, which serves as a reminder to do right by those who willingly walk into them for our protection.