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


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