Transparency under (wild)fire can only help
Relationships between public service agencies and the people they serve often, if not always, functions best when leaders make transparency a priority.
No matter how good the intentions of a governing body or public agency might be, if the work is done in a shroud of secrecy it tends to turn people into skeptics and potentially damaging rumors are given free reign.
Last week, the Ochoco National Forest joined local government and law enforcement officials in hosting an information meeting where the public was invited to come and learn about the status of the Desolation fire, along with how firefighters chose to attack it. People were given a step-by-step look at what firefighter leaders did and, more importantly for those who aren't privy to firefighting strategies, the reasons why they took those steps.
People had the opportunity to ask questions, whether they were tough questions or not, and the experts took time to not only respond in a group setting, but one-on-one after the main presentation concluded.
Oftentimes, when a large fire breaks out in the Crook County area, or in other places throughout the state or region, people often see the smoke pour in and, while information is dutifully provided by public information representatives, we seldom receive a detailed reason why such choices were made. As Ochoco National Forest Supervisor Stacey Forson said at the meeting, forest officials could do a better job of explaining why they do what they do. Why did they not use this particular piece of equipment? Why weren't firefighters sent into the Mill Creek Wilderness to snuff out the fire before it got so big?
Officials answered those questions and others. While people still had concerns and wished more resources had been available to fight the fire early, they at least understood the decisions. They understood that the Desolation fire took a backseat priority-wise to larger fires when it came to the availability of helicopters and other aircraft. They learned that the terrain of the wilderness, with its heavy and unstable snags, was too dangerous to put firefighters on the ground.
The public also learned that firefighting does take place on a wilderness area, a belief among members of the public that Forson was happy to dispel.
The meeting also gave the public a chance to voice their displeasure with the way wildness land and wildfire remnants are managed. They questioned whether it would be more cost-effective to clear fuels from burnt-out wilderness land and prevent fire than to fight the next blaze that erupts on the location of a previous fire.
Forson and other officials urged audience members in search of a better way to contact their legislators and see what can be done differently. Perhaps they will.
Meetings such as these should continue whenever Crook County is plagued with a serious wildfire. While providing the public with a look behind the veil, as Forson put it Wednesday, may not help fight the fire, it still goes a long way toward public piece of mind and improving the relationship between public officials and the people they serve.