As with any emotionally engaging event, large fires breed their share of far-fetched tales. And otherwise smart and discerning people have a way of suspending their natural skepticism when a story lends credibility to a cherished belief (i.e. the government is conspiring against us, Wilderness designation is a bad thing, irresponsible rural homeowners have only themselves to blame, etc.). Anyway, of the many legends currently making the rounds, here are a few of our favorites …..
Legend 1: Getting dozers started building fire lines on the Marble Cone, Kirk Complex and now Basin Complex fires was delayed by the need to get an act of Congress allowing the use of motorized equipment in the Wilderness.
This is related to the much more elaborate legend that firefighters had the Marble Cone Fire surrounded and almost put out while it was still small, but they were then ordered to stop using their chainsaws because they were in a Wilderness – which allowed the fire to get away.
Reality: Emergency situations, which specifically include fires, are expressly exempted by law from the ban on the use of mechanized equipment in Wilderness areas. This means it is up to the Forest Service to determine whether or not such an emergency exists. No act of Congress has ever been needed or sought for building dozer lines in the Ventana Wilderness. Any delay would be more appropriately blamed on Forest Service bureaucracy. But has there even been any delay? In all three fires, the dozer lines were completed long before the fire arrived. In 1999, the fire went out far short of many of the dozer lines, suggesting they were, if anything, built prematurely.
The old Marble Cone “They Wouldn’t Let Us Put it Out” legend is implausible for any number of reasons, but notable for the way it combines dislike of Wilderness designation with overtones of Forest Service conspiracy. For anyone who thinks the Forest Service would issue such an order in spite of the fact that there are no legal problems with using chainsaws to fight fire, let us just point out that the Marble Cone Fire, in its early days, was not one raging and completely out of control fire, but four – in widely separated parts of the Santa Lucias.
Legend 2: MODIS heat detecting satellite data was edited by the Forest Service to play down the actual extent of the fire and to cover up Forest Service mistakes.
Reality: While the Forest Service DID make misguided efforts to withhold important information from the public and WAS extremely reluctant to admit mistakes – waiting hours, if not days, before acknowledging breaches of the fire line – there is no evidence to suggest that they manipulated the satellite data. On the contrary, the satellites consistently revealed the failures of fire lines long before the Forest Service was willing to admit them – and due to their lack of precision, the satellites frequently made the situation look worse than it was, rather than better (as when numerous heat detections were located west of Highway One in the Big Sur valley). Had the Forest Service been editing the data, we’re sure these mistakes – at the least – would have been corrected. Never ascribe to conspiracy that which is easily explained by technical limitations and/or human incompetence.
Legend 3: The fire was worse than it should have been because environmentalists and/or rural homeowners (pick whichever group you dislike) have prevented the Forest Service from conducting controlled burns.
Reality: The Forest Service cannot conduct controlled burns without having a forest management plan in place. They have been promising such a plan since 1999, but have still not completed one. Far from opposing controlled burns, the Ventana Wilderness Alliance and other environmentalists have been pushing the Forest Service to get the plan completed. We know of no one, including homeowners, who has opposed the idea of controlled burns in the Ventana – although should controlled burns ever be used and should one run out of control, there’s little doubt that the Forest Service and environmentalists would be blamed (probably by many of the same people who are now accusing them of making fires worse by preventing controlled burns) – which may explain some of the Forest Service’s reluctance to move forward.