by William B. Scott
former editor, Aviation Week, former official, National Security Agency and author of Space Wars
Perhaps the most simple form of Economic Warfare is wild land arson—setting fires in U.S. forests and grasslands. For terrorists determined to inflict significant damage with very little investment or risk, fire is an extremely high-leverage weapon of mass effect.
When Navy SEALS killed Osama bin Laden, they captured a treasure trove of material that provided unprecedented insight into al Qaeda plans. One was a detailed campaign for starting fires throughout the West. U.S. officials have determined that some fires in California last year were ignited by al Qaeda operatives.
On May 2nd, ABC News ran a story entitled “Al Qaeda Magazine Calls for Firebomb Campaign in U.S.” Issues of Inspire magazine surfaced on al- Qaeda websites, calling for jihadists to start huge fires with timed explosives planted in U.S. forests.
The articles included detailed instructions for constructing remote-controlled “ember bombs.” The concept of “Fire Wars” is not merely a futuristic possibility confined to think- tank musings. As of last Saturday, there were 52 large wildfires burning across the United States. Thirty-eight of them were uncontained.
Since July 1st, crews have been battling fires in Colorado, Missouri, Idaho, South and North Dakota, Montana, Utah, Wyoming, New Mexico, Nevada, Tennessee, Kentucky, Alaska, Florida, California, Minnesota, North Carolina, Arizona, Nebraska, Alabama, Arkansas and Georgia. And those were just fires on Federal land.
They don’t include local and state fires, such as six that were started in wheat-stubble fields of north-central Kansas two weeks ago. Four were started in one night. Those of us who live in Colorado are already engaged in fire-combat. Recently, 25 fires were started within a few miles of each other in El Paso and Teller Counties.
Every one of them was attributed to arson, but fire crews extinguished all 25 before they caused much damage. However, the arsonist is still at large. In early July, there were 12 major fires burning in Colorado. Six of those consumed almost 167,000 acres, an area that is 4.27 times the size of Washington, D.C. One, the High Point Fire in northern Colorado, burned 87,504 acres and destroyed 259 homes.
But the most destructive fire in Colorado history started 3 miles from my hometown of Colorado Springs on June 23rd. The Waldo Canyon Fire exploded on June 26th, fueled by 100-degree temperatures, relative humidity as low as 2 percent, and 55-65 mile-per-hour winds.
In the span of minutes, not hours, wind- driven flames jumped two firebreaks and raced downhill into the Mountain Shadows neighborhood. Exceptionally dedicated, brave firefighters battled “a firestorm from Hell” that, ultimately, destroyed 346 homes and killed two people in a few hours.
The Waldo Canyon Fire burned 18,247 acres, forced 32,000 people to evacuate, and cost about $15 million in direct costs to bring under control. Investigators have not determined the cause, but we know it was not sparked by a lightning strike.
The top-level questions are: Was the Waldo Canyon Fire started by terrorists? Did the same person or group that ignited those other 25 fires finally score with the 26th? And was this part of an organized economic-warfare campaign of fires across the U.S.?
If it was an economic-warfare attack, then the Waldo Canyon Fire was a huge success. Home losses alone will exceed $100 million dollars. Businesses that were evacuated lost another few million. The Broadmoor, a five-star luxury hotel that wasn’t in immediate danger, lost more than 4,000 nights through cancellations.
Thousands of tourists were either driven from the mountains by evacuations, or simply didn’t come to Colorado Springs, because they were spooked by the massive fire. One community suffered 74 job losses, due to layoffs, and business revenues are down 45-65 percent. Insurance rates will probably rise, as a result of this and hundreds of other fires across the country.
Professional firefighters are warning that this rash of wild land fires may be only the beginning of a terrible fire season that could burn millions of acres across the West before the snow flies this winter. Ironically, the Blue Ribbon Panel report we submitted 10 years ago warned of exactly this situation: Extremely dry conditions, exacerbated by forests choked with downed timber and standing beetle-killed trees, that create ideal targets for terrorists waging economic warfare.
There’s reason to believe America is under attack, and that the bad guys are waging Fire Wars right now. But we, as a people, aren’t fighting back. Thanks to an ingrained, out-of-date mindset, we still treat fire as a “land-management” issue.
We should be viewing it as a grave national security issue. When we finally acknowledge that we are engaged in a brutal Economic War-by- Fire, we can adopt strategies to defeat terrorists who are starting those fires. We can use NASA and Defense Department satellites to spot new fires.
We can fly infrared-equipped NASA, Forest Service and military aircraft over fire-prone forests, operating Fire Combat Air Patrols around the clock. Let’s say an Air National Guard F-16 fighter equipped with a Lantirn or Sniper electro-optic pod spots a new fire start.
The pilot can immediately give firefighters its coordinates and vector initial-attack crews to the blaze. He also can track any vehicles near the fire-ignition point, and guide law-enforcement officers to intercept them.
Finally, we must develop and field a robust large air tanker fleet of firefighting aircraft. The Forest Service has made a good start, but it still suffers from a culture and attitude of what some firefighters call “cheapism”—the idea that we have to deal with wild land fire on the cheap. That’s no longer acceptable.
America is under attack by terrorists waging Economic Warfare-by-Fire. Unless we admit that, and properly focus our considerable national resources on this enemy, U.S. citizens will suffer intolerable—and completely unnecessary—loss of property and life. [Edited from prepared remarks and author’s additions.]
by William B. Scott