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Rim Fire showing us that policy changes are needed
Ceres Director of Public Safety Art deWerk

The damage of the Rim Fire is rapidly moving up in the record books as being one of the biggest and most damaging to our natural resources in California's history, with the total area burned now exceeding 200,000 acres. It is a fire that is showing what our firefighting professionals can accomplish during extraordinarily difficult circumstances, while at the same time, it brings into full view the question of whether our forest management policies are appropriate and in the best interests of the public and the forest itself.

The questions center around whether the forest service should continue to do only limited forest clearing and deadfall removal (which saves money and is a practice that seems to be preferred by environmentalists) or that the policy should be a more aggressive harvesting of trees and clearing of the undergrowth and deadfall. I do not have the answers to these questions, but I do know that many of us will never in our lifetimes see these hundreds of thousands of devastated acres return to their full and former beauty. It takes decades for a burned-down forest to grow back to what it used to be.

To add to everyone's frustration, there is realistic speculation that the cause of the fire was man-made; specifically by persons engaged in the illegal farming of marijuana. If that is the case, I pray that we find those responsible and prosecute them to the fullest extent possible. The federal government should also review its detection and enforcement policies as they relate to these illegal grows. It is common knowledge that marijuana grows in our forests are a regular feature of the landscape, but whether the government takes these grows seriously is another question.

I am sure that the federal budget difficulties, which reduces the opportunities for enforcement, and society's increased demand and acceptance of marijuana use, has contributed to the proliferation of major marijuana growing projects in our forests. Keep in mind that drug cartels are probably involved in some of the larger marijuana farms in our national forests. In any event, all factors that have contributed to the Rim Fire must be critically examined so that forest managers can learn from them and make the necessary policy changes such that the chances for a fire similar to this one can be significantly reduced. Very little can be done to reverse the destruction of the Rim Fire anytime soon, but at least we can do a better job of preserving the forest lands that are left over in the central range of the High Sierras.

As I mentioned previously, the work of our firefighting professionals is absolutely remarkable. The logistics of coordinating fire resources, both personnel and equipment from hundreds of agencies, is an enormous challenge. And keeping the firefighters safe from tragedies like the Yarnell Hill fire in Arizona earlier this year where 19 firefighters lost their lives, is a top priority and difficult at the same time. The personnel assigned to the Rim Fire do not exist in a pleasant environment with the heat (both from the fire and weather conditions) they often have to work in excess of 24 hours straight, their sleeping accommodations are far worse than the average family camping conditions, for the most part cell phones do not work so the firefighters are unable to communicate regularly with their families, and there are many other challenges and hardships that accompany these assignments. And let us not forget that there are hundreds of police personnel assigned to the Rim Fire area for security, search and rescue, property protection and for the evacuation of people and domestic animals. At the same time, there are hundreds of civilians functioning in support capacities, to include the Red Cross, various food suppliers, physicians, animal services, cowboys for the livestock, veterinarians and the list goes on. I can only imagine what the total cost of these operations will be once the fire is declared extinguished.

In short, the Rim fire is revealing much to us. It is showing the incredible team work, professionalism and efficiency of the various services and people assigned to this overwhelmingly large, dangerous and destructive fire. At the same time, it has created a situation and invaluable lessons from which we must learn. The policy makers, to include elected officials, forest managers and various other stakeholders should make the necessary changes to keep another Rim Fire from happening. The general population should be highly concerned as well and should therefore keep the pressure on those who make critical decisions that affect the vulnerability and future of our national forests. We stand much more to lose than only the forest itself. There are watershed implications, the forest ecosystem directly and indirectly affects all of us, the large scale fire damage affects the ability to produce power, there are now fewer natural resources for our use and the list goes on.

Just seeing this fire come to an end is not enough. The Rim Fire is showing us that changes need to be made.