Friday, August 31, 2007

Where the Heck is Yellowpine - Part II

In Part I of this dispatch, I asked "Where The Heck Is Yellowpine, and why am I risking my ass to save it?" Since I wrote that post, we have had a busy few weeks in the wildlands of Idaho.

By now, many of you have heard about or seen video of an incident on August 13th during which the Knox Ranch Incident Command Post (ICP or 'firecamp') on the Cascade Complex - in Central Idaho - was burned into by a wildfire. Backfires set to protect the camp from the fire's advance spotted across the road between the fires and the camp, and despite heavy helicopter work for much of the afternoon, at about 4:30 p.m., the fire burned up to the edge of the camp, melted some porta-potties, burned a yurt, destroyed several historic cabins, and ignited a dumpster in the middle of camp. Nobody in camp was seriously injured, and many non line-qualified personnel got a chance to experience group torching in lodgepole and subalpine fir up close and personal. An old Alaska Smokejumper friend who knows a thing or two about crown fire said simply "It was fu*#ing hot!"

After a few days off, many of us turned on the computer, caught up on some email, and browsed to the "Theysaid" blog on wildlandfire.com - the unofficial gossip column of American wildland fire. Here, the debate about the incident has centered mainly on language: Was this incident an "entrapment," a "burnover," or "close-call"? The USFS has coined a new phrase for such an event, they are calling it, a “burn-by.” None of these terms are casual - all have specific definitions and are usually associated with investigations, finger-pointing, and maybe a bit of new policy, e.g. "Though shalt not burn up thy firecamp."

Some have minimized the incident, pointing out that the camp (a mountain meadow) was essentially a large safety zone in which the camp's occupants were able to weather the firestorm without fire-shelters.

Much of the discussion about the ICP fire seems to blame Incident Commander Paul Broyles (in charge of the Cascade Complex when the incident occurred) for letting fire burn into his camp. This oversimplifies the case. Paul Broyles was the third IC to work out of the Knox Ranch ICP, and as the fire approached his camp, his Team had barely gotten their feet on the ground on an assignment with a myriad of political, tactical, and leadership challenges. None of the posts that I have read so far have talked about the bigger picture of the Incident - operations controlled by the Knox Ranch ICP were only one part of a huge operation involving several large fire complexes, hundreds of square miles of uncontrolled fire, thousands of firefighters, and hundreds of overhead personnel.

I have been working on the Cascade Complex for most of the time that it has been burning, and was in the ICP up until about 4 days before it burned. I think that the events leading up to the Incident are worth sharing because they raise wider issues that need to be discussed by the wildland fire community. The ICP burn didn't unfold overnight - like most wildfire accidents, this one was the result of a series of multiple oversights and miscommunications, and occurred during a major transition, which is a common cause of firefighter accidents. While the story below is mine, most of us who were involved think that the ICP fire merits further discussion, and begs larger questions regarding Federal Fire Policy in general.

Some Key Questions:
  • What direction was the Area Command Team providing the IMTs as the IMTs defined objectives for their respective fires?
  • At what point did the IMTs receive the direction to shift priorities from 'perimeter-control' to 'point-protection.'?
  • What were the dynamics between the IMTs working on the Cascade vs. East Zone Complexes?
  • Did having an Area Command Team overseeing operations help or hinder communication between the Incident Management Teams that they were charged to support?
  • At an early juncture, it was clear that the Central Idaho Fires were beyond control. Why did it take over a month for the fire organization to officially change their tactics to emphasize 'point-protection'?

The Central Idaho Fires of 2007.
The Cascade Complex was born out of a large lightning storm that swept fire ignitions across large portions of the Boise, Payette, and Salmon-Challis National Forests of Central Idaho on July 17, 2007. This storm started the fires that would become the 'East Zone,' 'Cascade,' 'Middle Fork,' and 'Krassel WFU (Wildland Fire Use)' Complexes. Each of these complexes has required their own Overhead Teams, and to date, have cost taxpayers over $85 million.

When Tom Suwyn's Central Utah Type II Team arrived at Knox Ranch on July 20th to manage the Cascade Complex fires, 5 fires were burning across about 650 acres - of steep, thicketed, backcountry land. Even though these fires had plenty of potential for growth, the Cascade Complex was 15th in priority for resources in the Eastern Great Basin Area. Other fires competing for resources in the region included the Murphy's Complex, which started on 7/16/2007 near Twin Falls and had burnt over 500,000 acres by 7/21. By July 26th, 1,420 personnel were assigned to the Murphy’s Complex alone.

By the 22nd, the incoming Team had three Type II crews to work with and no engines, and the fires had grown to over 8,000 acres. This is not an uncommon occurrence - most large fires get started when other large fires in a region draw down firefighting resources. The incoming Team did what they could with the resources they had on hand; they set up a firecamp, ordered 11 hotshot crews, 6 helicopters, and 25 engines, and focused on their mission "do what we can with what we've got, don't get anybody hurt".

Originally, the Cascade Complex was made up of 3 fires on the Northern End of the Boise National Forest - the 'Monumental,', 'Riordan,', and 'Whiskey' Fires. In Tom Suwyn's Team's short tenure, new lightning starts established the 'Sandy' and 'Yellow' Fires, and Suwyn's Team was able to successfully contain the 'Whiskey' Fire. Smoking on the backside of a ridge West of the Knox Ranch ICP was the North Fork Fire. This fire was one of the closest to firecamp, but it had started on the Payette National Forest, and operations on it were being run out of the East Zone Complex ICP in McCall - about 55 miles away. This created a disconnect where the intel (mapping, planning, and analysis of fire behavior) on the North Fork Fire was basically unavailable to the Overhead at Knox Ranch - even though they were camped only 4-5 miles from the fire.

Around July 22nd, Rocky Oplinger's California Type I Team arrived on at Knox Ranch and Tom Suwyn's Team went home. Simultaneously, Jeanne Pincha-Tully's California Type I Team arrived in McCall to take over the East Zone Complex. With the arrival of the Type I Teams, resources poured in from across the West. By 7/26 the Cascade Complex had 2 Type I helicopters and 17 engines assigned, but it was too late. August brought hot dry days and high winds, and within a few days, the fires on all of the Central Idaho Complexes blew up. On August 1st, the Monumental Fire covered over 7 square miles, the North Fork Fire was at 1,582 acres, and the week-old Sandy Fire had already blown up to over 10,000 acres. By August 4th, the Monumental Fire covered 12 square miles, the North Fork Fire had grown to 4,186 acres.

As early as August 1st, both Oplinger's and Pincha-Tully's Teams had taken note of the potential threat that the North Fork Fire posed to the Cascade Complex ICP. A Draft camp evacuation plan was developed for the ICP, and firecamp contractors with shower and catering trailers were being asked to consider mobilizing drivers in case the camp needed to be moved. The general feeling at this time, though, was that prevailing winds would carry the North Fork fire to the Northeast, bypassing the ICP. As days went by and the North Fork Fire began to blow up, Rocky Oplinger's Team sent a field observer over to take a look at what was happening there. Pincha-Tully's Team took offense at this action, feeling that their toes were being stepped on. Heated phone calls between the ICs may or may not have improved communication between these two Teams.

Cascade ICP - 8-7-2007

By the end of Oplinger's Team's two-week assignment on the Cascade Complex (8/8), the fires had burned over 69,000 acres, and the Area Command Team in Cascade made the decision to add the North Fork Fire (now over 7,000 acres) to the Cascade Complex, and to split the two Easternmost fires in the complex (Sandy and Riordan) into their own Complex - the Landmark Complex, which was to be managed by Tom Suwyn's Type II Team.

Splitting the Cascade Complex in two pieces meant that Paul Broyle's Incoming Type I Team had to inbrief with two separate outgoing Teams, and also had to coordinate with Tom Suwyn's Team to reassign/split resources from two Complexes into three. It goes without saying that this period of time (8/5 thru 8/8) redefined the term clusterf*&k -- at a time when the fires continued to blow up daily. Also, Joe Ribar's Area Command Team transitioned with James Loach's Team between 8/7 and 8/9. As the IMT transition finished its third day, the North Fork Fire crested the last ridge between it and the Knox Ranch ICP, and the biggest mob of blue-polo-shirted Overhead folks ever seen by this firefighter faced a wild sunset: a smoked-salmon disk sliding across ridgeline sillhouettes of torching Subalpine Fir.

Regardless of whether anyone in the Knox Ranch ICP got hurt in the fire, many people were placed in harm's way fighting fires that we all knew were going to burn "until the snows fly." While the North Fork Fire was threatening the Knox Ranch, Tom Suwyn's Type II Team was forced to relocate their Landmark Complex ICP twice within a week, as first the Monumental, and then the North Fork Fires threatened their camps. Both of these moves involved hundreds of people and long convoys of support vehicles (crew buses, porta-potties, personal rigs, clerical, catering, and shower trailers) moving across over 20 miles of washboarded, narrow, dust-spewing backcountry dirt road.

Crashed garbage truck burned by wildfire.

When Suwyn's Team moved out of their second camp -- at Cox Ranch, in the Johnson Creek drainage -- the convoy drove over Warm Lake Summit thru an area that had experienced thousands of acres of crown fire the day before, had not yet been 'snagged' (hazard trees felled), and was still actively burning. At this point, this was the only road leading out of the area -- the other egress had been closed by the Loon/Zena Fire's advance. The day before this second move, a skateboard-sized piece of bark launched by explosive growth on the North Fork Fire (over ten miles upwind) fell from the sky onto the firecamp! Smoke from this blowup drifted across the entire continent, and out over the Atlantic Ocean.

Smoke from Central Idaho Fires on 8/12/07

Map of Monumental and North Fork Fires - the Convoy passed right thru the middle of these two fires.

So, "Where The Heck Is Yellowpine, and why am I risking my ass to save it?"

The first "Yellowpine" post asked why were we fighting backcountry fires that were clearly beyond human control. That post leads directly to this one: if it were not for the presence of a few cabins (one owned by a Senator), or private ranches in this area, it would likely be "Fire Use" ground -- where lightning fires are allowed to burn naturally as they have done so since the dawn of time. Hundreds of firefighters and support personnel were placed out in front of wildfires that were running as much as seven miles a day in order to do some politically-motivated structure protection, and to try to hold onto the heel of huge fires that were heading for the wilderness. Idaho's Salmon River Watershed is Fire Country. The land needs fire, and any fires that we suppress there only delay the next big one -- and everyone knows this.

I applaud the decision to quit trying to contain and attempt perimeter control of these fires, and to concentrate instead on 'point-protection' of a few historic cabins, old guard stations, or pack-bridges. My biggest hope is that we can learn to make these sorts of calls earlier in the game -- not after the fires have kicked our asses around the woods for five weeks. Why did it take so long for the order to come to disengage from 'confine and control' tactics?

The firefighters on the Cascade Complex have had excellent leadership in their camps, but have been let down by those at higher levels. Jerking hundreds of people around (including Overhead, camp crews, cooks, and garbage haulers) in front of running crownfires is unacceptable. Wildland firefighters deserve a clearer mission.

- fire hobo


Sunday, August 19, 2007

New Strategy for Suppression Siege in Idaho's Fire Country

The East Zone Fire Complex, Cascade Fire Complex, and other large wildfires in Idaho continue to grow unabated despite the efforts of thousands of wildland firefighters and millions of dollars in attempted suppression. These fires are burning in Idaho’s Fire Country: steep, rugged mountainous terrain thick with fire-dependent vegetation where wildland fire rightfully plays its natural role as the “keystone” ecosystem process. In an implicit statement of humility in the face of an awesome display of Nature’s power, fire managers have created a new strategy that essentially ends the long siege in the forests, and wisely implements protective actions at selective sites where human structures and infrastructure are threatened.

The Idaho Fires are becoming a landscape-scale phenomenon, with the rate, intensity, and scale of fire spread apparently taking fire managers by surprise. A case in point: the Incident Command Post (i.e. “Fire Camp”) for the Cascade Fire Complex was entrapped and nearly burned over last week. Instead of relocating fire camp--a time-consuming and expensive operation to move a convoy of vehicles and reconstruct a mini-city in a new location, not without its own hazards driving in smoky conditions--fire managers opted for a “stay in place” strategy. Their decision was finalized when the wildfire burned across all roads leading out of the Fire Camp and cut off all escape routes.

Firefighters rigged up sprinklers on the perimeter of the meadow that served as Fire Camp. Non-firefighting camp support personnel were herded to the center of the meadow where they huddled together with their backs to the smoke and flames. Helicopters dumped water on the headfire as it hit the perimeter of the meadow, but the fire sent waves of ember-filled smoke into Fire Camp, sparking over a hundred spotfires. Folks scrambled to stomp out the spotfires as best they could, nevertheless, a yurt, some tents, portapotties, and an historic cabin were all ignited and destroyed by flames.

The stay-in-place strategy worked in that no one was immediately injured by the wildfire and suppression operations continued on the rest of the fire despite the drama in fire camp, and given the circumstances this probably was the best option in terms of firefighter safety. However, a more questionable call was the decision by fire managers to remain in the burned site surrounded by charred, smoking trees, with a thousand-foot smoke layer hovering above it during every morning’s air inversion. The result: smoke inhalation has sickened most camp personnel with various forms of bronchitis, and a pall of depression has affected morale in the camp. Forest Service officials are spinning the incident by calling it a "burn-by" instead of a burnover, but it still was an entrapment by any other name.

From a cursory look at fire maps it looks like several fires, especially the East Zone Complex and Rattlesnake Fires, will soon merge together, perhaps eventually merging with the Cascade Complex. Comparing the perimeters of current fires and old fires that burned in the area over the last six years (these maps are available on the GeoMac website), today’s Idaho Fires are simply filling in the unburned gaps between these past fires. In most cases, the old burns are serving as the boundaries to check the spread and confine the new fires, but in some cases even these old wildfire areas are reburning. So, the Idaho Fires are doing exactly what Mother Nature intended to happen, burning the areas that could have, would have, should have burned before had we not foolishly attempted to exclude and suppress wildland fires burning in Idaho’s Fire Country.

Upwards of $50 million have been spent attempting to suppress the Idaho Fires, most of it in futility. Firefighters were able to secure the heel of fires, tinker around and burn out the flanks, and keep well out of the way of the headfires, but these fires continually spot over firelines and spread unabated. Recognizing that mortal human beings are not able to stop the spread of these large wildfires given the weather, fuel, and terrain conditions, fire managers are no longer attempting initial attack on new fires ignited in the land between the existing large fires. The thinking is that initial attack efforts will be unsuccessful and extremely unsafe given prevailing weather conditions, but even if firefighters were able to contain the new fires, these would eventually be engulfed and absorbed into the growing perimeters of the large fires. Fire managers are thus wisely opting not to attack new fire starts in the “free fire zones” between the existing large fires.

Fire managers have now prepared a “Super WFSA” (Wildland Fire Situation Analysis, pronounced “woof-suh”). The WFSA is the guiding strategic plan for fighting wildfires, and normally every single large wildfire gets its own WFSA, but these are not “normal” times. The new Super WFSA creates a single, uniform strategy for managing all of the wildfires on the Boise, Payette, and Salmon-Challis National Forests. This makes sense, since these fires are bound to merge together by the end of this fire season if the weather conditions do not change.

This new plan will cease most attempts to assert “perimeter control” (the attempt to completely encircle a wildfire with a fire containment line), and instead, shifts to a strategy of “point protection” (placing firefighters and equipment at specific sites, such as rural communities, where suppression actions are both necessary and more likely to succeed). As the experience with the Cascade Complex Fire Camp entrapment demonstrated, firefighters are able to focus their efforts and successfully protect a specific place--even from a raging headfire--while letting the wildfire burn around them and keep moving on unabated.

According to the WFSA, fire managers estimate that the eventual size of the Idaho Fires will reach 2,000,000 acres, and under a worst-case weather scenario could grow as large as 5,000,000 acres. The total costs of “suppressing” these fires will be a minimum of $120,000,000 and could be as high as $205,000,000, making this the most expensive wildfire suppression incident in world history! What exactly American taxpayers will get from that huge expense of money is hard to say.

Many of the large fires are burning towards the the Frank Church/River of No Return Wilderness Area that could use some fire for ecological benefits, which makes the new strategy of point protection both economically and ecologically rational since there’s not too many places in the wilderness that need protection from wildland fire. Instead, firefighters will be staged at the few isolated cabins, historic sites, and small rural communities that inhabit this remote region. Firefighters will be covering cabins with shelter-wrap (a kind of tin-foil blanket that resists flames), coating power poles with flame retardant gel, pruning and thinning brush around structures, and other simple but effective protective actions to prevent human-built structures from igniting.

Given the kind of extreme fire behavior that has been happening to date, and the fact that many rural communities in Idaho are sorely unprepared for wildfires and most homes have no defensible space, these new firefighting assignments will still be challenging, to put it mildly. Apparently, most protective actions will be applied to government-owned properties only. It is not clear yet what kinds of actions will be applied to private properties.

Rural Idaho contains small communities and isolated homes of both poor folk and the ultra rich. Defending communities is one thing, but assignments to protect upscale trophy cabins and hobby ranches are not what most wildland firefighters imagined they would be doing when they enlisted. These properties are the vacation and retirement homes largely owned by corporate elites who make more money in a single day's worth of their Bush tax cuts than the typical ground-pounding firefighter makes in a whole season of hard labor. Firefighters will need to keep wildfire from igniting these isolated properties of Idaho's rural rich and poor because when that stuff burns it’s bound to be a toxic smoke that fills the air.

Its stereotypical but true: many rural Idaho residents are rightwing anti-environmentalist/anti-government types who would much rather be left alone—until a wildfire ignites and then they expect Uncle Sam’s firefighting army to come to their rescue. Some firefighters are starting to question why they are risking their health and safety for the likes of people who may scribble “Thank You Firefighters” on a piece of cardboard but do little to defend their own properties or make firefighters’ jobs easier, and in many cases, make their jobs much more dangerous.

Idaho’s Fire Country is a natural location for implementing Wildland Fire Use, a safer, cheaper, more environmentally sound way to manage wildland fires burning in remote regions with fire-adapted ecosystems. This is not the same thing as "Let Burn," but instead, firefighters can apply management actions that can steer fires into areas that need fire for ecological benefits, while slowing and stopping the fires from spreading into vulnerable human communities. Managing wildland fires is much safer and smarter and more successful than making "war" on wildfire. So far, no one has been killed on the Idaho Fires, but there are thousands of firefighters toiling away under similar conditions on other fires all over the West. This begs the question: why we are putting people in danger to fight Nature under extreme conditions and at such huge expense in an utterly futile attempt to stop a natural process? Let’s hope that this year marks the last time firefighters are forced to pay the price and taxpayers foot the bill for futile suppression siege spectacles in Idaho’s Fire Country.

--Lookout Lex and the Fire Hobo

Thursday, August 16, 2007

Where The Heck Is Yellowpine? - Part I

Photo Caption: This is the bumper sticker that is making the rounds of fire camps on the Cascade Complex Fire in Idaho.

Where The Heck Is Yellowpine?

"Where The Heck Is Yellowpine, and why am I risking my ass to save it?" For the past month, the several hundred people that I am working with have been asking this question.

As I write this, dozens of giant wildfires spread across wide swaths of the Northern Rockies. This is nothing out of the ordinary, of course - these forests rely on fire for regeneration and cleansing, and lightning has drilled dry Western forests regularly for thousands of years - everyone knows this.

But political cowardice drives a fire suppression policy that defies all measures of common sense.

For the gypsy crew of wildfire managers and FireWar Profiteers that we roll with, our 2007 fire carnival is a four ring circus set in Central Idaho - with each ring representing a huge fire. These landscape-scale burns are in an apparent race to consume the collection of cabins, mobile homes, and junker snowmobiles that comprise the 'historic' burg of Yellowpine. 'Historic' as in "something happened here once..."

Map of 4 fires threatening Yellowpine - active fire in red, completed line in black.
From: http://www.fs.fed.us/idahofires/news/closures/maps/0816/area-closures-0816.pdf

There is an outside chance that all four fires will converge upon the town in one tornadic afternoon: wings of flame sweeping together, clanging like giant anvils colliding, cleansing Yellowpine in yet another natural purge.

Everyone tasked with fighting these fires reaches three basic conclusions:
1. Once these big fires become established, no amount of firefighting will stop them 'until the snows fly'.
2. We are fighting these fires because some people live in these woods, and nobody wants to be the person who burned them out, and,
3. After 50 years of saving Yellowpine, we could have paid Big Sur land prices to buy out each and every hermit between Yellowstone and Oregon, and still come out ahead.

How might one column-driven fire steer another? Will one monster fire roasting an entire drainage in an afternoon create indraft winds which are strong enough to suck another huge fire - five miles away and across a canyon - into itself? If we set a backfire on one fire, will it suck or be sucked? These are the questions that fire managers must consider as they game-out tactics to steer landscape-scale fires. And that's what we are trying to do out here, to steer these monster fires away from a 'ranch' here, or a hillbilly commune there; just doing something, anything, to save the day.

The 'ranches' that we are protecting are a few dude ranches that wealthy outsiders can fly into for a weekend - a couple of horses and funky cabins grandfathered into National Forest land covered with thickets of lodgepole and fir (the natural cover here). The 'communities' are the Lower-48's equivalent of Fairbanks, Alaska - the end of the paved road, an oddball collection of heavy drinkers that have no use for society or government until their roads need plowing or a wildfire threatens.

Most of the characters that I met in Yellowpine look like they would be happy living in the 19th century. That's fine with me, but we should recall that the West of the 1800s had no organized wildland fire suppression, and that frontier towns burned to the ground on a fairly regular basis. As much as I would hate to deprive Yellowpine's residents of an authentic historic experience (wildfire burning their town), I am even less excited about putting wildland firefighters in there to chase spotfires through hazmat shacks, ammo caches, and tire fires as the big one rolls in. [for photos of Yellowpine, click here]

Now don't get me wrong: I have nothing against people living in the hills, being off-the-grid, or collecting a personal treasure-trove of 'might-come-in-handy-someday' car parts, old trucks, snowmachines, old barrels of acid, or junk lumber. The personal junkyard is a Western Institution, and I would be a hypocrite to advocate for its abolition; just don't expect me to put my ass between your junkpile and a running wildfire.

In the last several decades, great progress has been made in restoring fire to its natural role in the Great American Backwoods. Large expanses of roadless and wilderness land in remote areas of America's Interior West now have Fire Management Plans that designate large areas as "Fire Use" areas. Here, naturally-ignited fires burning may be allowed to fulfill their natural ecological role. Yet we allow one burg here, and a hamlet there to influence land management on the scale of millions of acres. In the case of Yellowpine, the hundreds of thousands of acres on the surrounding Payette and Boise National Forests that would benefit from a 'let-burn' policy are off limits to Fire Use, as natural fire represents a threat to the cabins, dude ranches, and bible camps scattered there.

Why are we risking our asses and squandering our fortunes on a few cabins in the sticks? We are here because America's politicians and land managers don't have the political backbone to ask:

"Who really gives a damn where Yellowpine is!"

--- Fire Hobo

NEXT POST - Fire burns our circus tents

Tuesday, August 14, 2007

Firebombs in the Forest: Untreated Slash Piles Fueled Angora Fire Destruction

The Angora Fire near Lake Tahoe destroyed hundreds of homes and other structures in the community of Meyers, California. There have been several post mortem analyses of the cause and effects of the wildfire disaster, yet there remains a grossly understated issue that has so far failed to generate the attention from journalists or policymakers it deserves: the presence of hundreds of unburned slash piles left over from thinning operations nearly three years ago that helped fuel the wildfire’s destructive power.

Photo Caption: The biggest cluster of destroyed homes was located next to the fuels reduction unit that had untreated slash piles left over from thinning operations completed nearly three years ago. The intense heat from the flaming slash piles lofted large burning embers that were carried by the wind and fell into the residential zone, igniting and destroying homes. Photo by FUSEE.
[For a larger image click here]

What is “Slash”?

“Slash” is the slang term for the needles, limbs, and small-diameter tree trunks left over from commercial logging or non-commercial thinning operations. As it dries out and cures in the sun, slash can be one of the most flammable fuels in the forest because it is easily ignited and burns intensely. So-called fuels reduction treatments that remove large-diameter tree trunks but leave the slash strewn across the ground are more aptly called fuels relocation rather than fuels “reduction” treatments, for they have merely relocated the fuel hazard from the tops of the trees where only the rarest and most extreme kinds of fire behavior—crownfire--can ignite them, down to the ground surface where they immediately become available fuel for the most common form of fire behavior: surface fire.

There are several methods agencies like the Forest Service use to “treat” slash. Some of the most popular methods like “compaction” (e.g. crushing the slash by running it over with bulldozers and log-skidding machines) and “lop and scatter” (e.g. cutting it up with chainsaws into smaller pieces and spreading it all over the forest floor) have been thoroughly discredited by fire scientists as increasing fire risks and fuel hazards, not decreasing them. Another popular method is to pile the slash either by handcrews or by machines. This decreases the horizontal continuity of fuel across the forest floor, but unless the slash piles are burned or otherwise physically removed, they can actually increase the rate of spread, intensity, and severity of a wildfire.

Anyone who has ever burned slash piles knows the kind of intense heat that is emitted—enough to burn the flesh of your face through radiant heat alone. Slash can burn for hours, and embers can smolder for days. Slash piles that are burned too close to standing trees can kill them through “cooking” the roots or “heat girdling” the trees, and ember-filled smoke columns can severely scorch or even ignite the canopy of overstory trees even if the flames from the slash piles do not come close to reaching the tree canopy.

Photo Caption: White ash-covered soil indicates extreme intensity and high severity. Black-topped stumps show that this stand had been thinned before the fire, but this did not prevent high fire severity. Blue paint on the largest remaining trees indicates this stand is a potential salvage timber sale. Photo by FUSEE.
[For a larger image click here]

Slash Caused Spotfires That Ignited Homes

This is precisely what happened on the Angora Fire: several hundred untreated slash piles ignited by the wildfire created such intense heat that it killed nearly all of the remaining overstory trees in the thinned units. In fact, according to the Forest Service’s analysis, the severity of the wildfire burning through the slashpiles matched the severity of nearby untreated stands, calling into question whether the thinning treatments was a complete waste of money and labor. Additionally, large burning embers were sent aloft from the slash piles and were transported by the wind into the nearby residential area where they ignited dozens of homes.

The biggest cluster of destroyed homes was located next to fuels reduction unit number 20 that had contained hundreds of untreated slash piles. The Forest Service claims that the thinning operations successfully reduced the amount of spotfires that occurred in the residential area because the reduction of trees reduced the number of tree crowns that could have sent aloft burning embers. However, the agency failed to acknowledge at all that the slash piles produced embers and spotfires.

Photo Caption: Each white dot is an ash mound that marks the spot where an untreated slash pile was left from thinning operations. There were hundreds of 10 x 10 foot slash piles spread approximately 20 feet apart in fuels reduction unit number 20 that were set ablaze by the Angora Fire. Photo by FUSEE.
[For a larger image click here]

Embers created by burning tree crowns can be picked up by the wind and carried relatively long distances. However, these embers also tend to be smaller in size, and therefore, have a shorter “residence time” (i.e. the time they are combusting before they burn out). If the ember burns out before it reaches the ground, it falls as ash and cannot ignite a spotfire.

Embers produced by slash piles generally have less chance to be picked up by winds because they start off at the ground surface, however, this does not apply during high wind speeds, and fuels reduction units that have excessively thinned trees enable high winds to blow right through to the ground surface. The intense and prolonged heat output from a burning slash pile can produce a convective column of hot air and smoke that can readily send embers high aloft. Additionally, embers produced by slash piles tend to have larger particle size with a much longer residence time, thereby increasing the probability that a burning ember can reach the ground and ignite a spotfire.

This appears to be exactly what happened when the winds shifted and pushed the Angora Fire into the residential neighborhood in Meyers. The intense heat and ember wash from hundreds of well-cured slash piles ignited homes located downwind, and killed all the trees in the thinned units. The Forest Service determined that the fire severity was identical between the treated stand full of slash in Unit 20 and adjacent untreated stands that had not been thinned.

Photo Caption: Another view shows the size of Unit 20 and the scale of untreated slash piles that sent the wildfire spotting into the tree-covered residential zone where the large white spots reveal the sites of completely destroyed homes. Photo by FUSEE.
[For a larger image click here]

Thinning Without Treating Slash is Not a "Completed Fuels Reduction Treatment”

The Forest Service has some legitimate reasons why it failed to effectively treat the slash in fuels reduction units burned by the Angora Fire, namely, the opposition by air quality regulators and local residents to the smoke that would be produced by slash burning. However, in its report on the effects of fuels treatments, the agency made an illegitimate excuse that claimed the piles were left untreated because they needed a minimum of one to two years to dry out prior to burning. This is simply not true—slash piles can be ready for burning in just a couple months after cutting, especially in the warm-dry climate around Lake Tahoe. And even a “green” pile of slash can burn if you pour enough burning fuel from your driptorch on it!

[September 25, 2007 Update: In response to the statement above, Forest Service managers have disclosed that the slashpiles contained larger logs that required one to two years to cure before burning. This would be a legitimate excuse for delaying up to two years to burn the piles, however, it has yet to be explained why these piles remained unburned after that two year curing time had passed. A September 5, 2007 story in the local newspaper, the Tahoe Bonanza, revealed that over 3,000 acres within the Tahoe basin have untreated slashpiles from past thinning projects, and local residents are concerned about the fire hazard presented by these piles. To the best of our knowledge, the Forest Service has not publicly disclosed a timetable for treating these unburned slashpiles.]

In reporting its accomplishments to Congress, the Forest Service regularly counts as “fuels reduction completed” the number of acres where it has thinned trees, and then can count these same acres again as accomplishments in fuels reduction if and when it later treats the slash created by thinning operations. Thus, for example, the agency claims a total of 80 acres of fuels reduction completed when it thins trees and later burns the slash on a 40 acre unit. In any other accounting system, this would be rightfully condemned as “double dipping” to cook the books. No fuels reduction treatment or forest restoration project should be considered properly “completed” unless and until it has BOTH effectively reduced the slash fuel AND completed understory broadcast prescribed burning to deal with remaining surface fuels.

The presence of unburned slash piles, their role in spreading the Angora Fire, and their location next to the biggest cluster of destroyed homes is worthy of more thorough examination by the press, but what is even more critical is for policymakers to deal with the wider, generalized issue of unburned slash piles—because thousands of slash piles are currently littering the forest floor throughout the Lake Tahoe Basin and hundreds of others areas across the West where logging and thinning operations have occurred.

From the evidence on the ground it is clear that in the Lake Tahoe Basin the pace of tree thinning is far outracing the ability of land management agencies to effectively deal with the slash left behind. The slash piles are so numerous around Lake Tahoe communities that in some areas there is barely any horizontal separation between piles. Slash piles are located right next to busy highways were a single carelessly discarded cigarette butt could set them ablaze. In many cases, piles are located dangerously close to remaining trees such that if and when the piles are burned by managers or by wildfire, they will likely damage or kill the trees. Thinning units littered with slash piles offer as much fire hazard reduction as covering up oil spills with a bunch of rags.

The Angora Fire offers a wake up call: untreated slash piles function like “firebombs” in the forest, increasing the spread, intensity, and severity of wildfires, and can be a major agent of home ignitions. The number, location, and extent of unburned slash piles scattered throughout the Lake Tahoe Basin and elsewhere across the West constitutes a real and present danger to residents living near similar so-called “fuels reduction” units.

--FUSEE Staff

Wednesday, August 08, 2007

Idaho Burning, Pt. 2

In mid-July a dense band of lightning, ahead of monsoonal moisture flowing up from the southwest, lit up Northern Nevada and Southern Idaho, sparking huge blazes in the cheatgrass and precious little remaining sagebrush. That same lightning extended into the mountains of “the Frank,” as the insiders call it. I headed for Idaho to assist in the management of four fires in and around the Frank Church River of No Return Wilderness on July 15th. Passing through Reno, the Reno-Gazette-Journal headlines blared “Wildfire Alarm: 185,000 acres burned during the past two weeks.” In the article we read,

firefighters worry that the financial impact on local governments is only going to grow, as the federal government, battling budget issues of its own, cuts resources or passes more costs to local jurisdictions.

Our 1st shift was Monday, the 16th, and the National Preparedness Level (PL) was already at four, just shy of the top level. Idaho had a fair snowpack early in the winter, but virtually no spring rains, leaving them in a region of rapidly expanding drought. On July 19th the National Preparedness Level rose to five, where it has remained for weeks, now, as firefighting resources remain stretched thin. Going to PL 5 elicited the "Moses Memo" from land management agency heads to "let their people go" from their day jobs to fill various unique roles as their red cards allow. Meanwhile, back in California, on July 20th, Gov. Schwarzenegger proclaimed a state of emergency for Riverside County, citing the county's extreme drought conditions. The next day questions and accusations were being flung in a public meeting in Burns, Oregon, about a recent large rangeland fire in that state. The Burns Time Herald reported intense questioning by local ranchers.

Lee Wilson, one of the ranchers from Riley whose private and public grazing land was burned, asked the fire officials, "Why didn't you act on the initial strikes? Now we're talking about millions of dollars. The BLM showed up when it got hot, and we were told all the equipment was tied up."

Wilson pointed out that there were crews near one of the strikes on Bald Butte, but they were unwilling to fight the fire without direct orders. Wilson's point was echoed by other landowners. Rancher Betty Morgan said, "When the fires started, the fire crews were forewarned in the evening. They had to wait for a briefing at 9 the next morning before doing anything."

In response to what the landowners called bad policies and indecisions, Incident Commander Jeff Pendleton said, "There were more fires than resources."

Congressman Walden remarked that because incident commanders have, in the past, been held personally liable for loss of life, fear of future lawsuits is another obstacle to jump in fire suppression.

A letter to the editor in the same edition summed up the attitude of those unable to see past their own short human lifespan.
I will not see the forest come back to what it was in my lifetime. No, let's not overcut or overgraze our lands, let's just burn them into the dirt.

OK, so there's not a lot of nuanced thinking going on there. The thinking being, heck, back when we were raping the landscape fires didn't get so big, so it must have been the "active management" that kept things so wonderful. It's a lot like claiming success in the War on Terror, because you haven't had any attacks. Well, many lawmakers in Idaho think this is just what their whacko anti-environmentalist friends want to hear.

By July 23rd, five counties in Idaho were declared to be in a state of emergency. The next day Larry Craig, the Senator from Idaho, lost it on the Senate floor. First, he waxed poetic about the old full-suppression policy that allowed the build-up of natural fuels, going a step further by claiming it was actually the logging that kept the forests clear of fuel.
Almost 100 years ago, the Forest Service started something. They started with a commitment and a philosophy to full fire suppression. Now I take you to a little bit of history as to what may be producing the very dramatic fire season we experienced last year and the year before, and we are now experiencing today. During that time, the Forest Service's aim was to extinguish every fire, man-made or lightning caused. With the exception of the last 15 years, the timber industry, on our public lands, enjoyed booming success during the same period. So while Mother Nature was not allowed to burn the forest, man was allowed to come in over the last 100 years and thin and clean. We called it logging. That produced the timber for the home and building industries. As a result, it is arguable that wildfires were kept somewhat under control. Not only did we put the fires out, but we were taking the fuels off the land.

Then he went on to blame, who else, but Bill Clinton.

In the 1990s, during the Clinton years, as a result of the impact of a variety of public policies, from the Endangered Species Act to the New Forest Management Act to the Clean Water Act and the Clean Air Act, and a lot of other combinations, we began to progressively reduce the overall cut of timber on public lands. In the 8 years of Bill Clinton, we reduced the allowable cut.

Going on to make a great case for global warming, Craig says,

So in part, the West is burning today because of public policy, because of attitude, not because of Mother Nature. Mother Nature has ebbed and flowed over time. But when Mother Nature is taken out of balance by man's practices and policies, dramatic results can occur.

That’s for sure, Larry! The specific policy and attitude that has most taken “Mother Nature” out of balance is the hubris of believing that we can burn fossil fuels to our heart's content. I’m not sure what Larry knows about the “ebb and flow” of nature, but he’s right in concluding,

The fires that are burning in the West today are not natural. They are hotter, they are more intense, they are more destructive than any forest fires we have seen in our forests literally within a century.

Hello!? They’re made hotter and more intense by a hotter, drier climate and an influx of non-native plants, especially cheat grass, making fires more frequent. Incredibly, Craig wants to take issue with those who are trying to put fire back on the landscape, where it can work to lessen the impacts of subsequent fires. He asserts
There is an alternative besides simply locking it up and letting it burn. Yes, the skies of Idaho and the Great Basin West are full of smoke at this moment. That smoke is our natural resources going up in smoke, literally.... somehow there are those who are willing to ignore it only in the reality that it is nature and uncontrollable. I would argue that is not true because 30 years ago we did not have these kinds of fires, and 20 years ago we did not have them, even though we had peaks of drought and dryness and heat.

Craig was on fire, so to speak, as he lamented that all the resources of Idaho were “disappearing in a ball of fire, and it should not be that way.” He missed the point, however, regarding climate change. Craig and the other wise-use wheeze-bags are still into that - man’s dominion over nature - thing, believing that if we had enough 747 air tankers and clearcuts, we could get a handle on all fires, in a time when the climate is creating greater flammability. Too late, Larry, the cat’s out of the bag! With the coming climate, things once considered rare, like floods and fires, will happen with increasing frequency, specifically because of poor energy policy that rewarded the use and exploitation of fossil fuels. Craig ignores the fact that many of the acres contributing smoke to the Idaho air come from fires inside the Frank Church Wilderness. Did the good Senator believe that the time had come to begin building roads into wilderness and roadless areas? Is the public supportive of that?
Give me a shovel, give me the tools, give me a better environment--a managed environment, if you will--and I can fight a wildfire. Do not allow Federal judges to be land managers.

Uh huh. We’ll be lookin’ for you out on the line, Larry. Or maybe you can just have Gonzo fire the offensive judges that support legal intervention by environmentalists. He seems to be able to operate with relative impunity from the pesky interference of Congress. Well, not everyone agrees that a managed environment is always better than an unmanaged one, but you get the point. This whole act before Senate served as a signal to everyone in the logging and ranching community to engage in name calling and the inevitable blame game of hostile locals towards federal land management regulation, like the landowners in Tahoe, at the recent Angora Fire.

The local McCall Star News on July 26th recounted the horror of landowners who lost homes during the Raines Fire. That was in a tiny enclave, in a remote and inaccessible site inside the Frank. Another tiny town, Secesh, was threatened, along with its residents, many of whom were known to be hostile to local authorities.
“We’re rebels, but we aren’t thieves,” said Karin Becker of Lake Fork, who has owned property in Secesh for 32 years.
Becker said she’s not terribly fond of the federal government but recognizes the hard work and dedication of the fire crews.

Vern Peterson, a 20-year full-time Secesh resident, said he is frustrated with the Forest Service over the management of local lands.
“As thick as the forest is, the Forest Service knows that if they don’t defuel it, we’re going to continue to have this problem,” said Peterson, a retired logger.

How, exactly, does one "defuel" the forest without the use of fire in remote, roadless areas? Sadly, the value of wild nature is lost to many, with only extracted resources being the measuring stick for a place's worth. The debate raged on for days in the Idaho Statesman, as their readers struggled to understand why you can't just control fires by throwing more equipment and young lives at them. The Statesman gave politicians a platform to pander unscientific conjecture to their emotionally aroused constituency.
July 27 -- Fire puts ranchers into an economic, emotional taiilspin

July 28 -- Fire officials: Let it burn

July 30 -- Global warming forces Forest Service to reconsider fire strategies

July 31 -- Idaho politicians blast federal fire management

By this time both Idaho Senators, Crapo and Craig, and Governor Butch Otter were in full accusatory mode, blaming the Endangered Species Act, insufficient grazing, and rules preventing unsupervised and untrained locals with dozers from having a go at the fires.
Calling rules regulating firefighting "the Don't Book," Otter said relaxed rules could have allowed crews to stop the fire much sooner, though he offered no specifics.

The Editorial Staff at the Statesman finally got it right on August 1st, when they concluded:
Timeout on the blame game. Time for tough reality.

• We're in the heart of another long, unrelenting and frightening fire season. This summer could match 2000, Idaho's worst fire season in recent history. The fall's first snowstorm is weeks away.

• The long term offers little relief as well. Global warming threatens to bring the West more of what we're seeing this year: More drought, more parched range and forest, more searing summer weather.

• Climate change corresponds with a long-overdue attitudinal change to firefighting. The feds are abandoning their decades-old practice of trying to suppress all fires as quickly as possible. This approach strains limited resources, puts firefighters at unneeded risk — and has left public lands choked with trees and underbrush and vulnerable to catastrophic fire, such as the Murphy Complex Fire. The feds need to change their ways, but in the meantime, millions of acres remain at risk.

Severe fire seasons? Get used to it.

During rush hour on August 1st, a primary bridge between Minneapolis and St. Paul, the “Twin Cities,” crashed to the ground with dozens of cars dropping off the collapsed roadway into the river below. Emergency rescue workers braved dangerous conditions to search for survivors amongst the wreckage. No matter how conservative, when disaster strikes, many believe that someone should step forward in an official capacity. How can one possibly expect for any kind of emergency service when we allow the government to be run by those who say they hate government. Naturally, if you let these folks play with it, they will break it, likely out of spite, just to prove their point. Or, like Bremer and the immediate post-invasion Iraq management, through outright negligence and ignorance. How many Katrinas and other natural disasters associated with the onset of dramatic climate change will it take for us to set our national priorities straight?

On August 17th, the Idaho Statesman headline in the Nation/World section read “U.S Generals: 2nd surge an option.” Throughout the time I was in Idaho assisting with the management of their fires, I routinely read Letters to the Editor from Republicans weeping and wailing and gnashing their teeth about the need to finish the mission in Iraq so our deaths to date would not be in vain. One even suggested that
the president must pull our combat forces out of Baghdad, and pursue the unspoken goal of seizing and securing the oil reserves in western Iraq
I suppose filling up the ol' farm truck for a run into the Super Wal Mart is getting a wee bit pricey. Well, I guess we have our priorities. With the cost of the war in Iraq at $200 millon a day, the total annual cost of wildland firefighting in this era of increasingly costly mega-fires rarely exceeds $2 billion, a mere twenty days of business-as-usual in Iraq.

The Idaho Statesman continued its incendiary reporting on the wildfires yesterday by resurrecting the spectre of the Sagebrush Rebellion. Tomorrow they will tackle the issue of unprecedented fire behavior and the breakdown of many fire behavior models. Many of the tools to predict fire behavior depend on climatological statistics, which are meaningless in an era of unprecedented climate. It will grow increasingly obvious in the next few years that climate change is having a huge impact on wildfire extent and severity. Those fire behavior events, once thought to be "rare" are happening with an increasing frequency, often requiring a major recalibration of probabilities and fire behavior prognostication. All of the best models break down in the case of extreme, plume-dominated fire behavior. Firewhirls, mass area ignitions, and other disturbing anecdotal stories coming in from the fireline this year give veteran firefighters the chills. There will simply not be enough money, nor enough equipment to combat all fires in all places. Those who choose to live in fire prone areas will adapt or be burned out. This will be a slap to those delusional few, who still buy into human dominion over nature rap, but Mother Nature always bats last.

--dj greenfire