Wearing hard hat, goggles and heavy boots, Interior Secretary Bruce Babbitt poured burning fuel onto a steep mountainside Friday to show his support for prescribed burns.
Babbitt called the controlled use of fire to prevent larger wildfires “the most important natural resource management initiative in the entire country.”
Babbitt helped forest workers and Boise National Forest Supervisor Dave Rittenhouse set fire to grass, shrubs and minor vegetation. About 750 acres were to be burned Friday.
Set in the Poorman area just north of Idaho Highway 17 that burned last year, the fire spread slowly through low shrubs and grass before clouds of smoke billowed over the mountainside.
Babbitt has been to fire lines before, watching crews fight forest fires. But it’s the first time he’s ever been to a prescribed burn.
He donned the full gear worn by firefighters, including fire-retardant shirt and pants, with work gloves clipped to his belt.
Boise National Forest officials said they have cleared out underbrush, fallen trees and dead vegetation through fire on about 8,000 acres this year, with plans to cover about 15,000 acres this season.
The Boise National Forest is a good example of why controlled burns are needed, Babbitt said.
Before 1986, fires burned about 3,000 acres a year in the forest. Since then, an average of 63,000 acres have burned each year.
Babbitt said people in the West were brought up thinking fires are bad, so in the past nearly every fire has been fought. But now forest experts believe that occasional fires help clear out the underbrush and keep little fires from becoming major ones.
He called controlled burns “a necessary and urgent example of what we need to be doing everywhere.”
“By using fire at the right time, we are preventing a big, catastrophic fire elsewhere,” he said.
Fighting wildfires has become expensive. Decades ago, the national fire bill on public lands was $100 million. Today it is almost $1 billion, Babbitt said.
But he said the federal government needs to do far more in controlled burns to prevent disastrous wildfires. Although the Clinton administration has earmarked up to $50 million a year for controlled burns on about 1 million acres of public lands, Babbitt says 10 times that much needs to be done.
He also appealed for cooperation from state and local officials so that needed prescribed and controlled burns can be conducted.
“We cannot do this at the federal level without cooperation at the local level,” he said.