Wednesday, July 25, 2007

Senator Larry Craig Yells "Fire" in a Crowded Political Theatre

I just read Senator Craig’s speech on the Senate floor July 24th, 2007. His speech was apparently emailed to every fire management employee of federal land management agencies, all without any substantive comments besides the word, “Interesting.”

I would like to remedy this lack of comment. I spent 10 years working for the US Forest Service. One of the reasons I left the US Forest Service was the constant pressure to lie within the NEPA process to say that timber sales had fewer and less deleterious effects than we, the various specialists working within the agency, knew that they had.

My job for ten years was providing analysis of the impacts of commercial logging on the forest fire environment within timber sale environmental documents. It was also my job to provide plans for cleaning up the copious amounts of vegetative debris or logging "slash" that timber sales create. I have a degree in forestry from Colorado State University, where I majored in fire management. I have fought fires, lit prescribed fires, and managed wildland fires for resource benefit for 30 years, including serving two years on an interagency hotshot firefighting crew. I have also been a US Forest Service District Assistant Fire Management Officer for two different National Forests in California.

Senator Craig stated that “[W]hile Mother Nature was not allowed to burn the forest, man was allowed to come in over the last 100 years and thin and clean.” Timber sales as practiced during this time did not "thin and clean." The largest trees were removed—the ones contributing the least to fire hazard in the forest. When loggers went into the woods, they would fell the large trees, cut the tops and limbs of the trees off (which were left on site), and then haul out the trunks of the trees. Incredible amounts of flammable logging debris were left behind.

Logging companies were supposed to pay for the elimination of this slash, either by mechanical piling and burning or broadcast burning. This was done very begrudgingly, with Forest Service timber managers always trying to minimize the amount of money that the loggers would have to pay to clean up the mess left by logging. Through underfunding and neglecting slash removal, coupled with the fast pace of logging, a huge backlog of timber sales could not be cleaned up. As a result, timber sales have greatly increased the fire hazard on our forests, not decreased them.

For years in the supposed heyday of timber sales, the customary way to “clean up” debris left from the loggers was to send in crews to merely use chainsaws to chop up larger debris so that the forest floor would be covered with slash "only" three feet deep. This was no way to effectively decrease fire hazard! Consequently, timber sales greatly added to the fire danger in the woods.

As an initial attack firefighter, I always tried to find out where the logging areas were located near a wildfire because I knew that fire behavior would intensify when the fire reached these cutover areas full of slash. Logging slash can whip up flames and send burning embers ahead of the main flame front to ignite spotfires, greatly adding to the hazards facing wildland firefighters.

To claim that historical logging has decreased fire hazards is a lie. Senator Craig is ignoring the fact that fire size has historically grown larger during the time of increased logging, not after it. Although commercial logging levels have recently declined in some areas, the legacy of past logging--the removal of large naturally fire-resistant trees, the slash, weeds, and young tree plantations covering old clearcuts--is affecting fire behavior today.

It seems to me that Senator Craig's logic of cutting down the forest in order to make enough money to save it from wildfire is kind of like the attitude that drove the American War in Vietnam: we have to destroy it to save it. I used to call it “My Lai forestry” when I worked for the Forest Service. It was and is patently absurd.

We see smoke in the valleys and mountains every summer because America is a fire-dependent continent. The very trees that Senator Craig champions cutting down depend on fire. I guess Senator Craig advocates converting the entire forest turned into a tree farm, where every square inch is planted by hand, and wildfire is kept away. He desires a return to the great heyday of logging that created huge clearcuts—swaths denuded of all living vegetation and planted with rows of nursery-grown trees. They were plantations, not forests. And as we are seeing today, young timber plantations are hardly "fireproof." On the contrary, they can burn with an unnatural ferocity and cause complete devastation.

Senator Craig asked that foresters, not judges, be allowed to be land managers. The foresters were running our forests like they were tree farms, according to economic principles that have little to do with providing ecological integrity but more to do with corporate profits. The foresters were cutting down public forests in violation of the nation's environmental protection laws, and that is why judges were forced to step in and stop the law-breaking by foresters.

Once the sign welcoming people to the Modoc National Forest was vandalized to read not “Land of many Uses” but “Land of Many Abuses”. That about summed up the “great heyday” of logging in our forests, which should belong to all of us, not just the logging companies that bid to use our natural resources.

I do agree with Senator Craig in one detail—the fires burning in the West today are hotter, more intense and more destructive. But the reason is not that we aren’t logging the forest, but because we have climate change and urban sprawl. People moving into fire-prone wildlands and building their homes out of flammable materials expect a Federal Fire Department to bear all of the costs of fire protection. Meanwhile, the planet's atmosphere is heating up from human-caused fossil fuel burning, and this is causing increased wildfire activity that is overwhelming the capacity of wildland firefighters to protect vulnerable rural homes.

Senator Craig said that 20 years ago we did not have the kinds of fires we have today—I guess he has forgotten about the Yellowstone Fires of 1988 and the West Coast Siege of 1987. Has he really forgotten about the Idaho fires of 1910, too? What about the Peshtigo Fire of the last century? The Peshtigo Fire was the deadliest wildfire in American history--it claimed the lives of over 1,500 people when wildfires were sparked in cutover lands covered by logging slash.

Senator Craig still subscribes to the old psychology that either we control the forces of nature or they will control us and defeat us. This is nonsense! We need to learn to live with wildland fires as an ecological necessity and unavoidable fact of life. We need to build homes with fire resistant materials and good sense, and create fire-compatible communities able to dwell sustainably within fire-permeable landscape and fire-dependent ecosystems.


Friday, July 20, 2007

OSHA Faults U.S. Forest Service for Firefighter Deaths

Yesterday the Occupational Safety and Health Administration (OSHA) released its final report on the Esperanza Fire disaster that claimed the lives of an entire engine crew of five Forest Service firefighters. The L.A. Times published a story on the OSHA report, revealing that the Forest Service failed to comply with three of the Ten Standard Fire Orders and six of the 18 Watch Out Situations.

Following the criminal indictments of firefighters following the fatalities of the Thirtymile and Cramer Fires, there has been a lot of debate within the firefighting community over whether the "10 & 18" are rigid rules versus guidelines.

The Idyllwild Town Crier, the local paper of the community where most of the Esperanza victims resided, also reported on the OSHA findings:

OSHA issued six serious violations. Based on federal code, OSHA cited the Forest Service for not furnishing places and conditions of employment that were free from recognized hazards that were causing or were likely to cause death or serious physical harm.
This finding is "otherworldly," bordering on the absurd, since safety risks and health hazards are inherent to emergency wildfire suppression. Although new safety protocols, training, and cultural attitudes are reducing some the risks, firefighting will never be completely "free of hazards" that could cause death or injury. This is especially true since the environmental hazards of global warming-induced severe fire weather and extreme fire behavior conditions are getting worse.

It is comforting to hear individuals like Tom Harbour, director of Forest Service Fire and Aviation Management, declare that, "We are not going to die for property." However, this wildfire season has already experienced several near-misses, including a serious burnover that caused career-ending injuries to an engine crew trying to protect an indefensible home on the wildfire burning in the Inyo National Forest.

This harsh fact of life should be communicated repeatedly to the public and public officials: every time young people are sent to aggressively "attack" wildfires it puts their lives at risk. That risk better damn well be worth the possibility of their ultimate sacrifice. Better yet, it is time that we make proactive fire management the norm, and reactive wildfire suppression the exception.

--Lookout Lex

Thursday, July 19, 2007

Wildfire Preparedness Raised to Top Level 5 Today

Yesterday the National Interagency Fire Center announced that wildfire preparedness was moved up to Level 5, the highest state of alert. This was due to the high number of large wildfires (greater than 100 acres) scattered across several different regions, and the recent spate of thunderstorms which have ignited more than 1,000 new fires since last Monday. The increased fire activity has stretched national suppression resources to their limits, and the Level 5 rating makes it easier to order up resources from international allies (e.g. Canada, Australia) as well as the National Guard.

Last November at the Third International Fire Ecology and Management Congress, federal fire officials predicted that appropriated funds for federal fire operations would be exhausted by July of this year. While this has not come true yet, it is only a matter of time.

Last year, firefighters labored under Level 5 state for several months, and by default, several fires were managed as Wildland Fire Use (WFU) fires. In general, WFU require fire less crews and cost much less per acre to manage as do suppression fires that aim to assert full perimeter control. Consequently, new advocates for WFU are coming from the strangest places, such as the U.S.D.A. Office of Inspector General.

As fire managers scramble to beg, borrow, or steal crews and equipment to work on all the new fires burning in the West, it is hoped that this season will be another banner year for WFU--the safer, cheaper, and more ecologically appropriate method for managing wildland fires burning in remote, fire-adapted ecosystems.

--Lead Lighter

Wednesday, July 18, 2007

Angora Fire: Burning Homes, Not Crownfire, Fueled an Urban Conflagration

Within the next two weeks, the California State Fire Marshall will release a final Building Damage Assessment Report of the 3,100 acre Angora Fire located near Lake Tahoe. Initial newsmedia accounts stated that over 250 homes were destroyed. Nearly all of the damage or destruction to buildings occurred within the first few hours after the wildfire started as the wind-whipped blaze spread through the small community of Meyers, California. See the North Tree Fire website for an excellent Google Earth tour of the Angora Fire and spatial analysis of destroyed homes. A detailed description of the actual fire behavior of the Angora Fire, an analysis of the way that the fire spread through both residential areas and undeveloped wildlands, and the process by which individual structures were ignited and consumed by fire will hopefully be revealed in the Damage Assessment report.

While flames were still spreading and smoke was spewing during the first days of the wildfire, many claims were made in the press about the role that wildland vegetation, particularly trees, played in causing wildfire destruction of houses, and alternately, the role that Forest Service fuels reduction projects and fuelbreaks played in saving homes from wildfire destruction. Based on eyewitness accounts of folks who live in or have recently visited the Angora Fire area, the following is our assessment of the facts about the Angora Fire as we currently understand them:

Surface Fire, Not Crown Fire, Entered and Ignited the Residential Area

Contrary to prevailing beliefs that a tsunami-like towering inferno rolled across the community of Meyers, in actuality, the headfire (the fastest-spreading and hottest part of a wildfire’s flame front) initially bypassed the community. A shift in wind direction then enhanced the flanks of the wildfire perimeter to spread into the residential area. At the places where the wildfire moved from undeveloped wildlands into the developed neighborhoods, with little exception the wildfire was a surface fire, not a crown fire.

This point is worth repeating: the Angora Fire was burning on the ground surface, not the tree tops, when it entered the residential area. Pro-logging interests are currently using the Angora Fire to argue that the lack of logging around Lake Tahoe communities created hazardous fuel conditions that allowed a crownfire to destroy those homes. The reality is that burning homes ignited surrounding tree tops and adjacent homes. Although there were a few instances when the tree canopies did not ignite even though nearby homes had burned, there were no instances where burning canopies alone minus burning structures had ignited other homes.

Fuels Reduction Treatments Did Not Stop the Wildfire

Also contrary to prevailing beliefs that fuels reduction treatments stop wildfire spread, the Angora Fire spread through areas that the Forest Service had completed fuels reduction projects within the last six years--in some places, fuels treatments had been completed as recently as three months ago.

This point, too, cannot be overstated: where the Angora Fire entered into the residential area, the wildfire had spread through a fuels treatment unit. Fuels treatments alone do not stop wildfire spread or protect communities from home ignitions.

The bottom line is that there are numerous tradeoffs involved in constructing and maintaining fuels reduction treatments. Depending on the amount and kind of tree thinning conducted, fireline intensity and the risk of crownfire may decrease, but the rate of surface fire spread may actually increase. The rate of spread is a critical factor in determining the number of homes that are simultaneously exposed to flames and the ability of firefighters to construct containment lines. Simply reducing the amount of trees or shrubs alone does not guarantee better wildfire protection for adjacent communities.

Recent statements to the media have acknowledged that under extreme fire weather conditions, fire suppression has limited success even with fuels treatments. But fire suppression has successfully contained 97-99% of all wildfires during initial attack during the last decade regardless of fuel loads. The 1-3% of the wildfires that defy successful containment typically occur during severe fire weather or extreme fire behavior conditions, and it is under these conditions that most Wildland/Urban Interface fire disasters occur. Thus, if fuels reduction treatments do not benefit suppression efforts during these extreme conditions, then they cannot provide protection for vulnerable homes, as evidenced on the Angora Fire. There may be other social or ecological benefits to reducing fuels in forested wildlands, but protecting homes during severe fire weather or extreme fire behavior conditions is not one of them, and they ought not to be “sold” to the public as being designed for community wildfire protection.

Untreated Thinning Slash Does Not Make for a "Completed" Fuel Treatment

Forest Service officials were quick to claim that recently completed fuels treatments prevented the wildfire from entering the tree canopies, and spared as many as 500 more homes from wildfire destruction. However, regardless of the fire behavior within fuels reduction units, there is a lingering question as to whether or not slash treatments had been fully completed inside the units. The Forest Service annually reports to Congress on the number of acres it has completed fuels reduction, and counts as “acres treated” units where it conducts a tree thinning operation, and then can count those same “acres treated” again when it finally treats the thinning slash, normally a year or more after the initial tree cutting. Thus, for a given 40 acre unit, the agency can report 80 acres of fuels reduction treatments “completed” by adding the tree cutting and slash burning treatment acres together.

Within some of the fuel treatment sections located near residential areas there remained large unburned slash piles mountainously high. Logging slash in general poses extreme fuel hazards that can create high fire intensity and loft embers that can ignite spotfires ahead of the flame front. It is unknown at this time what role if any the untreated slashpiles inside fuels reduction areas may have played in the spread or severity of the Angora Fire. Trees inside the fuels reduction units have been severely scorched and have browned canopies even though the crowns were not consumed. Heat generated from excessive surface fuels like logging slash is sometimes sufficient to kill large trees by "heat girdling" their trunks, baking their roots, or convectional heat cooking the canopy even though flames do not get anywhere near the tree tops.

A Wildland Fire Became an Urban Conflagration

Once the Angora Fire spread out of the fuels treatment units into the first line of houses along the outer edge of the residential area, it rapidly transitioned from a wildland fire to an urban conflagration. The residential portion of the Angora Fire spread as a chain reaction of burning homes igniting adjacent homes. The intense, prolonged heat output from flaming structures sent a sustained flow of radiant heat and burning embers that ignited vegetation and other homes located downwind. This intense heat output enhanced firebrand ignitions of homes and surrounding vegetation across paved streets that progressed downwind igniting houses from block to block.

The first homes to burn occurred barely one hour after the wildfire was first detected, but once this first line of homes ignited, the fire dramatically increased intensity so that many homes were simultaneously set aflame within a short time. Tragically, it appears that even homes that had prepared for wildfire by having flame-resistant roofs and defensible space were consumed by the flames spread from homes that had not taken these steps.

Observing the effects of the Angora Fire, it appears that the residential fire dynamics operated almost independently of the fire burning through the undeveloped wildland areas. While it is true that vegetation was much denser in the residential area than in the surrounding wildland, the principal fuel causing extreme fire intensities were burning structures rather than vegetation, although both fuel types were involved in the conflagration. There were hundreds of undeveloped lots interspersed within homes but the wildfire did not move through these densely-vegetated lots with the same intensity as it did through highly-developed residential areas. And again, in many cases burning homes ignited surrounding tree canopies, but in no case did crownfire without structural fire ignite homes. The final Damage Assessment report will hopefully provide more details on the actual fire behavior and effects of the Angora Fire.

Preventing Future Wildfire Disasters Means Reducing Home Ignitability

For policymakers trying to make sense of the Angora Fire and take steps to prevent similar future disasters, there are a number of important lessons to be learned. First, it is time to stop speaking in vague generalities about the spatially amorphous “Wildland/Urban Interface Zone,” and instead, focus attention on what Forest Service fire researcher Jack Cohen calls the Home Ignition Zone. Too often, when policymakers speak about the Wildland/Urban Interface Zone, they focus on the (publicly-owned) wildland part and tend to ignore the (privately-owned) urban portion of the problem. Management actions to reduce home losses to wildfire must be centered on reducing fuel hazards in the home ignition zone, an area 200 feet or less in radius around structures. Vegetation growing within developed suburban areas should not be considered “wildland” but rather residential vegetation, and it is the residential vegetation located within the home ignition zone that matters most in terms of reducing hazard potential. Where home ignition zones overlap, community cooperation will be necessary to reduce everyone’s vulnerability to igntion.

Second, it is time to stop thinking about creating defensible space around homes as a responsibility solely of individual homeowners. Instead, this is rightfully a social problem and a community-wide responsibility. Rugged individualism is not a viable strategy for protecting one’s home that is most threatened by ignitions coming from a neighbor’s property. Not everyone who lives in rural America has the wealth or legal or physical ability to deal with fuel hazards of their homes. There are lots of impoverished people, renters who do not own the homes they live in, and elderly or infirmed people who cannot do the necessary work themselves. In these cases, it is appropriate for governments and communities to facilitate hazard reduction work on these properties. A socially progressive policy to reduce home losses to wildfire would devise a set of grants, low-interest loans, and free labor sources like Americorps to get the work done for people who need assistance.

Ultimately, though, it is time for our aesthetic sensibilities to adapt to the fire-prone environments we live in. It is time for homes to be located, designed, built, and maintained so that they can survive the spread of wildland fires with minimal or no need for human intervention. Wildland fires are inevitable; consequently, wildfires during extreme fire behavior conditions are inevitable as well. The current strategy of protecting homes through attempts to prevent and/or suppress wildfires is simply not a viable strategy, especially given the fact that most ecosystems in North America are adapted to or dependent upon recurring fires to maintain their ecological integrity and biological diversity. Added to this is the fact that global warming and climate change will likely increase the frequency of large-scale high-intensity wildland fires that will simply overwhelm the capacity of the fire services to successfully fight every wildfire.

The FUSEE vision is to recreate fire-compatible communities capable of living safely and sustainably within fire-permeable landscapes and fire-adapted ecosystems. May the Angora Fire provide us all with a teachable moment to change public policies and personal lifestyles needed to move toward that vision.

--FUSEE Staff

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Thursday, July 12, 2007

Angora Fire Sparks Anti-Enviro Pyroganda

The 3,100 acre Angora Fire near Lake Tahoe has been contained and controlled, and is soon to be declared officially “out,” but the firestorm of controversy ignited by that blaze is far from being over.

The wildfire was ignited on June 24th from an illegal campfire located next to a popular undeveloped recreation site. Given the extremely dry fuel conditions in drought-stricken California, and coupled with strong gusting winds, the fire rapidly raced out of control. In the span of a few hours, over 200 homes in the small community of Meyers, California were completely destroyed.

The second day of the fire, two firefighters were burned over when the burnout they ignited suddenly backfired on them during a wind shift, jumped the fireline, and forced a mandatory evacuation of the entire Tallac Village subdivision containing another 300 homes and over 2,000 residents.

Lots of angry, confused local residents and opportunistic, anti-environmentalist politicians were looking to blame somebody for the wildfire disaster, starting with two time-tested but timeworn scapegoats: environmental activists and government regulators.

Less than 24 hours after the Angora Fire started, the bashing of environmentalists began. South Lake Tahoe city councilman, Mike Weber, started it off by blaming the Sierra Club and environmentalists in general for delaying efforts to salvage log dead trees and clear brush from around Lake Tahoe. Unfortunately for Weber, the wildfire burned in an area that had recently been thinned by the U.S. Forest Service; moreover, the agency admitted that not a single fuels reduction project within the Lake Tahoe Basin Management Unit of the Eldorado National Forest had been delayed or blocked through appeals or lawsuits in the last ten years.

During a pre-scheduled oversight hearing on July 26th in the Senate Energy and Natural Resources Committee to discuss the status of the federal agencies’ wildfire preparedness, Senator Larry Craig did his usual rant against environmentalists. He railed that the Angora Fire disaster was “human-caused due to environmentalists blocking clearcutting.” Craig made the preposterous claim that younger trees in clearcut timber plantations were much more resilient to wildfires than old-growth trees.

On July 3rd, Congressman John Doolittle kept up the anti-enviro bashing during a photo-op tour of the Angora Fire area. Doolittle warned reporters that the Sierra Club is “actually gravely endangering the population” and “severely threatening the environment” around Lake Tahoe by opposing salvage logging and mechanical thinning within riparian areas.

Meanwhile, at a town meeting held on June 25th in the local high school auditorium which barely escaped the flames itself, an angry crowd of local residents was bashing the Tahoe Regional Planning Agency (TRPA) for its restrictions on tree cutting and other vegetation removal within the Lake Tahoe basin. The media reported charges from one local resident that the TRPA actually banned residents from raking dead pine needles off of their lawns, and his house was spared from fire destruction only because he had illegally raked his yard.

The TRPA was created by an act of Congress in 1969 in order to regulate development around Lake Tahoe, and established regulations on vegetation removal in order to protect water quality and keep sediment from running into Lake Tahoe and further degrading its world-famous deep blue color. The TRPA responded to criticism from local residents by clarifying that there were no restrictions against homeowners cutting dead trees of any size or age, and no permits were needed to cut live trees under six inches. The TRPA does require homeowners to get permits for cutting big, old trees in order to prevent some residents from cutting down large trees simply to improve their private views of the lake. The agency has redoubled its educational efforts on the TRPA website to facilitate residents' efforts to create defensible space and live with fire while still protecting forest cover and water quality to keep Lake Tahoe blue.

The TRPA has long been a target for ire by local residents and land managers irked by the restrictions placed on their autonomy to do whatever they want to vegetation on private or public land. Interestingly, just a couple days into the wildfire, a commercial website was launched that sold “Thank You Firefighters” T-shirts, and buttons with the TRPA covered by the circle-and-slash symbol. This is a relatively petty but revealing example of how quickly opportunistic private and corporate economic interests can roll out prefabricated anti-environmentalist, anti-regulatory propaganda during wildfire disasters.

The scapegoating of environmentalists or regulations for “causing” wildfire disasters through obstructionism of so-called hazardous fuels reduction and forest restoration projects is a time-tested public relations strategy invented by corporate logging interests and their political allies. It had huge play in the press during the 2000, 2002, and 2003 wildfire seasons, and was a major factor behind Congress passing the Bush Administration’s misnamed “Healthy Forests Restoration Act.” As investigators sift through the ashes of the Angora Fire and determine the actual fire behavior and fire effects of that wildfire, it is still uncertain at this time whether or not journalists and the Democratic-led Congress will fall for this anti-enviro “pyroganda” again.

--Lookout Lex

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Monday, July 09, 2007

New York Times on WUI Fire Danger

If you haven't seen the special feature story, "At Your Peril: On Fringe of Forests, Homes and Fires Meet," published by the New York Times on June 26th, it's worth checking out while it lasts. Additionally, FUSEE's executive director got a letter-to-the-editor in response to that story published on July 3rd. That LTE is posted on the FUSEE website.

As recent events such as the Angora Fire near Lake Tahoe demonstrate, fast-moving wildfires can destroy hundreds of homes in a single burning period. While the smoking ruins of gutted homes attract journalists like snags attract bark beetles, there is a distinctly different tone to most of the news stories of wildfire disasters like the Angora Fire. For one thing, there is more social and ecological context provided, namely, the combined effects of rampant urban sprawl into fire-prone wildlands; the legacy of past timber extraction and fire exclusion leaving abundant fuels and dense vegetation to feed the flames; the role that climate change is playing in creating severe fire weather events; and the flammable state of many rural homes whose owners failed to build their structures out of fire-resistant materials or manage the surrounding vegetation on their properties. The stories are not the same old schtick of heroic firefighters battling demonic wildfires to save helpless homeowners.

The NYT article raises many excellent points about rampant surburban development, rising suppression costs, and the responsibilities of rural residents to do their share to reduce fire risks and fuel hazards.

One passage is worth commenting upon:

Forest Service officials say they are used to being blamed. “Neither our strategy nor our priorities have changed,” said Mark E. Rey, under secretary for natural resources and the environment at the Department of Agriculture.

Safety of firefighters comes first, Mr. Rey said, then safety of residents, protection of structures and protection of resources.

Setting aside the obstinate "stay the course" stance that echoes the Bush Administration's position on the war in Iraq, Mark Rey is flat wrong in his assessment of priorities. According to the Federal Wildland Fire Policy--that "mother-of-all" interagency policies that serves as the philosophical foundation for all federal fire management agencies and applies to every acre of Federal land containing burnable vegetation--protection of private property and natural resources are of equal importance and prioritization. Suppression strategies depend on an assessment of the relative values at risk. Thus, as a hypothetical example, when faced with a choice of defending a single, remote triple-wide mobile home or a rare old-growth wildlife reserve, the home should not automatically be selected as the number one priority--just the opposite! The mobile home can be quickly replaced, but not so the old-growth grove.

This exemplifies a problem that has endured since the inception of the Federal Wildland Fire Policy: the gross ignorance and indifference of agency officials to fully understand, implement, and abide by the Fire Policy. When it was first unveiled in 1995, the federal government announced that the agencies were getting out of the business of structural fire suppression and getting into ecological fire restoration. Sadly, those were just false promises.

Ultimately, the restoration of ecological integrity and reintroduction of wildland fire offers the best promise of reducing both firefighter fatalities and home losses. Had the Fire Policy been faithfully implemented from the beginning, we would be way ahead of the curve in terms of reducing home losses to wildfire. Instead, we are chasing the dragon, and the dragon is hungry for houses.

The destructive mix of ignorance and arrogance that marks the Bush/Rey Administration should be included in future news features and the media's examinations of the social and ecological context of current wildfire events. Forest Service officials like Mark Rey bragging that "neither our strategy nor priorities have changed" amidst a rapidly changing environment, while facing widespread and well-deserved blame for mismanaging the public's forests is hardly an example of leadership or display of comfort to the wildland firefighters or rural residents who must sift through the ashes of the Administration's skewed priorities and neglected policies.

--Lead Lighter

Sunday, July 08, 2007

California Burning, Pt. 1

7-7-7 wasn’t a lucky day for the East Side Sierran communities of Lone Pine and Independence yesterday. Both communities were evacuated as lightning fires threatened to vaporize more homes in the California wildland urban interface. Other fires are burning on the Plumas National Forest NE of Quincy, in SoCal near Santa Barabara, and near Winnemucca, Nevada I’m just going to be bold and go right out there on a limb with this one - we’re going to see more civilian and firefighter deaths in California this season.

Things are as dry as I have ever seen in my neck of Sierran paradise inside Yosemite, and there is no shortge of warnngs about the dry fuels throughout the region, including , California, Nevada, and Arizona. Our own fuel moisture sampling program has verified the crispy nature of things. All that is missing is lightning, and the monsoonal flow is expected to pick up in earnest next week, sending tropical moisture towards the High Sierras. Perhaps the serious lightning will stay on the less populated East Side, but beware of the Sierra-wide lightning bust that slides over the onto the western slopes in the ponderosa pine-mixed conifer zone and down into the brush covered foothills of Gold Rush fame. There one will find remarkably dry fuels and an increasingly oblivious population of aging baby boomers, recently relocated from the cities.

Like the folks around Lake Tahoe, these urban white flight newcomers are intolerant of prescribed fire smoke and they love their trees, even the little ones that make their homes death traps. If you want a good site to watch the drama unfold, try the MODIS site, where you can see the most recent heat signature of fires burning in your area. Probably based on old cold war technology to detect Russian missle launches, a click on your region of choice will produce a map showing all the heat detected since Jan. 1st in yellow, with the most recent heat signatures from the last two passes of the satellite shown in orange or red. For this year, wherever goeth the lightning (or arsonists), goeth fire.

Of course, after years of Republican malarkey about the horrors of big government, we see the effect on disaster response quite clearly with the Katrina fiasco. Privatize it all, we’re told. Either flee in your SUV, or drown waiting for a bus that will never come. The perfect storm brewing in California this summer has many root causes, but the angry storm over the Angora Fire shows one thing quite plainly. After years of conservative whacko conditioning, the public will always blame the government 1st. Government success is no news, while government failure is big news. Oddly enough, citizens still expect emergency response personnel to bail their asses out of a sling. In a recent article in the NYT about the encroachement of more and more homes into fire-prone wildlands , we hear the usual refrain.
Some residents in the high-risk areas worry that the federal government will be tempted to pass the problem along to local governments or homeowners. “The federal government is there to protect the community from disasters,” said Ron Ehli, 50, a volunteer fire chief in Hamilton, Mont.

Damn straight, we’re going to pass the cost on to municipalities and homeowners. These are the entities that have fueled the problem of suburban sprawl into the “flame zone”, as former National Park Service Director, Roger Kennedy, calls these disaster prone areas in his new book, Wildfire and Americans. In this book, Kennedy charts the intentional collusion of automakers, road builders, developers, and atomic scientists to depopulate city centers and reduce the impact of nuclear warfare with Russia. The incentives for sprawl, born from the fear of nuclear fire, continue to this day. We have opted for the slow burn, rather than the quick falshover. Sadly, it is the young wildland firefighters today that will face the latter protecting homes that should never have been built. Today’s Fresno Bee reports the following:
Four out of five homes built near Lake Tahoe since 1990 are in areas considered to have a high fire hazard, according to a new analysis less than a week after a blaze destroyed 254 homes and caused more than $141 million in property damage.

There is certainly blame to be spread to the federal agencies for mismanagement of public lands. Principly, the policy of fire exclusion in fire-adapted pine forests is most to blame. The build-up of fuels and the drying climate ensure large fires to continue in these wildlands. Here in Yosemite, one of the 1st land management units to buck conventional 1950’s wisdom about the need to extinguish all fires, our ability to put fire on the ground has been severly limited, because of increasing nearby populations of smoke-intolerant immigrants into the flame zone.

There are slow signs of recognition. After the Esperanza Fire, that killed five firefighters in October of last year, the Fresno Bee reported on Thursday the results of a panel covened to consider development into the wildlands.
Riverside County should limit development in areas prone to wildfires or face further devastation, according to a panel appointed after October’s deadly Esperanza blaze. “We’ve had developments where 20 or 30 homes are built down in the Banning Pass area, right next to 8- to 12-foot chaparral that hasn’t burned in 50 years and they think nothing of it. We can’t do that anymore,” said panel member Larry Kueneman of Pine Cove.

Of course, it may well be too little to late. One of my greatest personal fears is the loss of institutional knowledge that has been taking place in the wildland firefighting ranks, with the ongoing departure of baby boomers to retirement. The last great influx of professionals willing to work in the woods for low pay occurred in the 1970’s and those leaders are leaving the U.S. Forest Service and Dept. of Interor land management agencies in droves today, either to retirement or to much more lucrative positions with CDF (now CalFire) or municipal fire departments, which have many open positions, as well. Another excellent article from the Fresno Bee, written on Independence Day, finally sheds light on this potentially catastrophic brain drain. Here’s the dangerous part:
Of the 230 Forest Service engines that go out on daily patrol, as many as 40 are under the direction of captains working six-day weeks under a new overtime allowance from emergency funds, officials said. Existing staffers are getting early promotions or being pressed into acting management positions. “There’ll be more people with more overtime this year,” said Campbell. “But they’ve lost the wisdom that comes with fighting these fires year after year.”
The key positions that supervise young firefighters on engines and crews, instead of having ten or fifteen years of knowledge, may have three, four, or five, at best. Many of these young leaders have been promoted much more quickly than the last generation leaders. Here’s the bottom line - This summer in California, we’ll be seeing fire behavior unlike anything that 80-90% of the current wildland firefighting workforce has ever seen before. Suburban sprawl, record dry fuels, inexperienced crews - it’s a recipie for disaster. If you don’t believe me, ask the folks in Independence. Yesterday wasn’t a lucky day for them. They rolled craps.