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


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