Firefighting Policy Time Out or “Reversal”.. You Read the Memo and Decide

I’ve seen a couple of articles about a new fire policy with regard to “letting it burn”. Haven’t seen the text of the actual policy.

Here’s
a link to a fairly long piece about it, including an interview with Jim Hubbard, excerpted below.
Here’s a link to the memo.

In fact, Hubbard and everyone else agree that allowing wildfire in wilderness makes long-term financial sense. “It does. It absolutely does,” said Hubbard. “This is not a good position to be in.”

Niel Lawrence, director of the forestry project at the Natural Resources Defense Council (which publishes OnEarth), argues that the agency is suppressing wilderness fires today as a way of generating future revenue for itself. He said the agency has been deprived of the income it once drew from timber sales (because of greatly decreased demand for lumber and pulp), and so has learned to maximize its income in the fire suppression business. When forests and homes are burning, and the images of slurry bombers are dominating cable news, it’s an opportune moment to pry money loose from Congress. Fire suppression today guarantees there will be more fire in the future to make that gambit sustainable, Lawrence argues.

Regardless of motives, the whole situation takes on an added urgency in light of global warming. Given the prospect of more hot, dry weather and more catastrophic fires in the future, it seems prudent to burn what is burnable now, Lawrence says, again to defuse the future bomb. “We’ve got a window here that’s closing,” he says. “If we don’t get fire back in now, it’s going to be impossible to control it later.”

There’s been overwhelming agreement with that idea in the past from Forest Service fire managers, but sticking to that principle means the bureaucracy needs to accept some short-term risk — including some political risks — for long-term gains. Hubbard made it clear in his conversation with me that the agency, at least at this point, is not willing to do that.

The two other major federal agencies charged with managing public lands — the Bureau of Land Management and the National Park Service — have not followed the Forest Service’s lead. After Hubbard’s memo, they restated that they will continue to follow the 1995 policy. In the mountainous West, however, the Forest Service carries the most weight on this issue; it manages about 60 percent of the total designated wilderness acreage in the 11 contiguous Western states.

Hubbard’s letter containing the new directive cites “unique circumstances,” and in our conversation, he acknowledged that those circumstances are global warming. But in terms of the future, those circumstances are not at all unique — hotter, drier, more fire-prone conditions across the West are the new normal. So does this mean, I asked him, that the keystone of wildfire science and policy for nearly two decades is a first casualty of global warming?

“I would agree with that,” Hubbard said. “And this is not a policy shift because we thought we were headed in the wrong direction. It is a financial shift.”

But tight budgets and a hot climate aren’t going away anytime soon. So the Forest Service’s new policy continues to shift the burden of global warming to future generations: their forest fires will be bigger and more costly because we refused to confront the new realities facing us now.

Note from Sharon:
Oh, for heaven’s sake! Does Mr. Laurence really think this is a conscious effort to get more money for the FS in the future? And why would that matter to a current employee such as Mr. Hubbard?

Another hypothesis might be (and I have no reason to think that that is the case), that this is an election year and the Executive Branch folks told the FS to be conservative on fires that might get out of control and provide campaign fodder.

Or maybe Congress or even OMB told the FS to pick the lowest cost solution, if they want to get funding.

Just sayin’ FS fire folks don’t work in a vacuum.

I also thought that it was entertaining that someone wrote by the side of the memo:

James E. Hubbard, deputy chief for state and private forestry, orders an “aggressive initial attack” on fires sparked in wilderness area managed by the U.S. Forest Service — even though he acknowledges that this reverses a long-standing federal policy designed to create healthier forest ecosystems is undesirable from both a scientific and long-term financial standpoint

Hubbard never said it was undesirable from “a scientific standpoint”. Science doesn’t give us an endpoint, it gives us a path forward. Having “restoration” as an objective is no more scientific than having increased exports as an objective. IHMO.

18 Comments

  1. I see he wildfire issue differently. In my view the issue is one of damage to people, the land and, yes to the taxpayer. While I believe few people would support the exclusion of fire, properly planned for and managed, I see little support for fire running amuck. In my view there is good reason to allow fire to do its thing in wilderness areas, if will stay in the wilderness. Unfortunatelly in the past deceade more of these wilderness fires have crossed the line and caused resource damage, property damage and health problems and grief for people in the path of the smoke and flames. The answer? I don’t know. But a first step might be some serious and civil cnversations among the principals in the natural resource and fire community that focuses on the reality of fire and its impacts rather than rhetoric. .

  2. I think you hit on it Sharon– there is no stomach for any political risk between now and November. Let’s see what the policy is next season. I also agree that the premise that this is a way to keep future fire budgets high is an unlikely explanation. .

    Ultimately, the federal land management agencies must use wildfire as a management tool. There’s not enough management through timber treatments or prescribed fire to make a difference ecologically at the landscape scale. Only wildfire that is managed to meet resource objectives (or not) can work at that scale.

  3. As a fire manager (as well as the other “hats” I wear these days) I’m beyond too much civil discourse on this one….it is just….well…..asinine. “Culural Transformation” may be a joke, but this is truly offensive.

    To scrap a 40 year old successful program of managing wilderness fires at virtually no-cost and untold ecosytem benefits in the name of saving money goes to show how obtuse our leadership really is. YES, they are willing to tell us, “take that tool ot of your toolbox”, even though many collaborative and non-collaborative relationships have been built upon responsibly using natural igntions as an appropriate tool to achieve land management objectives.

    I’ve already seen hundreds of thousands of dollars thrown at suppressing fires that had no chance of doing anything but good. Sure, there are examples of fires burning out of the wilderness, but they are few. I’ve seen initial attack resources exposed to greater risk and tied up needlessly (where they could have been more valuable elsewhere) on the same no-account fires.

    An interesting FOIA after the season would be to compare costs under this new direction to historical costs of allowing fires to burn. The politcal CYA of this “new” direction is so tranparent that even the GS-5 firefighters, who are equally confounded as to the change in what they’ve been taught, are frustrated.

    Apparently the failures and lessons learned from things like the Vietnam conflict haven’t resonated. Media attention is a powerful tool and when it shows things like homes burning up from wildfires, Congress and leadership seem to be quick to issue a “one size fits all” decree that says “wildfire=bad, we will put them all out…..the heck with the folks on the ground, we know better”. Yep…a good strategy.

    This “new” policy is shoved down our throats from so far above that no one can challenge it…simply, we will not allow fires to burn, and “thou shalt” have a suppression response to ALL fires….Fire managers are hamstrung, so the suppression “strategies” have morphed into “point protection” (read: we’ll let it burn, do nothing and protect values at risk, even though there are none)…all good, as long as there is a “suppression strategy”. A disengenuous use of semantics, if you ask me and most others.

    It’ll be interesting to see what happens when the Agnecy is clamoring for “targets” later in the season, since “suppression fires” don’t count towards “fire use” (or whatever it’s called these days) targets.

    I have nothing else rational to add at this point…

  4. Turning $3000 lightning fires into $30,000,000 firestorm is not fiscally responsible. Sadly, wildfires don’t benefit goshawks or spotted owls, and re-burns do serious damage to soils. Indeed, the 17,000 acre Chips Fire, on the Plumas, is burning entirely within the fully unsalvaged (thanks to Chad Hanson) Storrie Fire, straddling the Lassen and Plumas National Forest boundary. Of course, we’ll see extreme erosion enhancement and trees won’t seed in, or thrive, in such an impacted soil. We’ll also see extreme erosion in the Feather River canyon.

  5. JZ: Usually we seem to agree on most things, but when you say: “Sure, there are examples of fires burning out of the wilderness, but they are few,” you are not talking about Oregon, and maybe not Washington or California, either.

    Some of the worst fires in US history burned “out of the wilderness” here in Oregon, and the main reason there aren’t more examples is because Wilderness is such a new land management concept. Here are some examples:

    The Silver Complex was the worst fire in southwest Oregon history before 2000, and grew out of the Kalmiopsis Wilderness 25 years ago; ten years ago an even larger fire, the Biscuit, grew out of the same Wilderness, fed by unsalvaged snags and dead wood from the Silver Complex.

    The B&B Complex is the largest wildfire event in western Oregon Cascades history, nearing 100,000-acres in size. It started in the Mt. Jefferson and Three Sisters Wilderness areas, and the entire complex has reached nearly 250,000 acres in size over the past 15 years, involving much of the Warm Springs Reservation and local private and industrial stands of trees as well as non-Wilderness USFS lands.

    Having unmanaged or poorly managed Wilderness wildfires affect adjacent landowners (and air breathers) in Oregon is a serious problem, and has been for at least 25 years. Watching those fires burn has not worked; neither has firebombing them in desperation (Mount Washington Wilderness 2011).

  6. Bob,

    I still think we’re in agreement…maybe I should have said ‘Sure there are examples of fire burning out of wilderness, but they are relatively few compared to the many hundreds that have been managed/allowed to burn”. You have pointed out a FEW examples that were likely caused by a combination of weather events and a lack of resources. I wouldn’t comment on “poor management” though, since I’ve walked a mile in those shoes.

    My point is simple. It’s stupid to spend a bunch of money and risk firefighters on fires that have no chance of doing anything but good. And by no chance, I mean no chance. It’s stupid to say, “yes sir, we’re suppressing these fires (under a point protection strategy)”, when you’re actually not…

    • JZ: I think it’s more than semantics. The fires I mentioned were huge, and there was concern from the beginning that the Biscuit and B&B were both being seriously mismanaged. The “lack of resources” became an excuse in the Biscuit Fire, while strong indications of politically-timed arson were quickly covered up and disavowed during the B&B. And these weren’t the only “let it burn” fiascoes in Oregon — only the most extensive (and most expensive).

      The other point is I have never heard of a wildfire that “did nothing but good.” Even prescribed fires have unintended consequences, such as air pollution, wildlife mortality, and human accidents. Personally, I think there should be a LOT more fire in our Wilderness areas, but it should be prescribed and implemented by experts. It has always been my contention that people — given the chance — are a lot smarter than lightning. Our federal wildfire program of the past few years doesn’t seem to share this belief.

      • Bob, who pray tell are those experts? What constitutes “implementation” with regard to natural ignitions? Do you know of the rigorous decision making and documentation process that must be followed prior to allowing a fire to burn (pre this “new” policy)?

        I can show you maps of tens of thousands of acres of fire that did nothing but good. Perhaps a few fuzzy brown things got burned up and some folks had to eat smoke, but that’s it. Would have happened regardless of what management did.

        I would agree that we can do a better job than lightning, but natural fire is/should be a tool, where appropriate. Please re-read the last. I’m still an advocate for responsible land management/logging (call it “restoration” if you must) as a more precise tool……where appropriate.

    • Shall we dedicate resource to keep those let-burn fires contained, while others keep popping up, maybe close to communities? Letting a fire burn for three weeks is mighty expensive, and is a waste of helicopters, engines and handcrews, when the potential for worse fires is ever-present? You cannot just walk away from Wilderness fires, as well as “wilderness” fires, too. If the Let-Burn fires were burning in treated areas, I might be more open to this strategy?

      • Larry, I’m going to call on this one. I understand your perspective and understand (and agree with the fact that) containing “let-burn” fires elsewhere has different implications as you and Bob have pointed out.

        Here in the Northern Rockies, however, with our vast expanses of wilderness and 40 year old successful fire-use program, that logic doesn’t track…in fact we’re making the same argument. Is it wise to tie up skilled IA resources on no account smoldering snag fires in the middle of nowhere when they could be saved for higher priority fires elsewhere?

        The only folks I know of that are in favor of this “new” policy are the smokejumpers who are getting tons of business (I should know, I used to be one). From a management perspective, though, I’ll never get my head around it.

        When you say you’d be open to allowing this (“let-burn”) strategy in treated areas, I’m curious….does that include in areas where fire has been allowed to play its natural role and there is a diverse vegetation mosaic with numerous natural barriers to fire spread?

        • JZ: I will concede that the northern Rockies might be a great place to let lightning fires (and other wildfires) burn under a watchful eye, due to the relative lack of human populations, scattered fuels, limited resources, and rugged terrain. Oregon, Washington, California, the Coast Range, Cascades, Olympics, and Sierra Nevadas are different though.

          When I was a reforestation contractor in my younger years, we burned about 18,000 acres within some of the planet’s largest fuel loads, and following property boundary lines that rarely coordinated with the topography or the road system. This was done over a 10 or 12 year period, in chunks of 40 to 400 acres and I think we had a total of about three (3) acres of slopover during that entire time. And so far as I know, none of those areas have been burned since in a wildfire.

          There is so much fuel in this country, and it grows so fast, that lightning can’t keep up with it. On the Coast Range its even worse, because lightning rarely strikes there most years, and usually in conjunction with heavy rains when it does. Grasslands and shrublands typically produce enough fuel each growing season to carry a fire; and these valleys and ridgelines, lowlands and southern slopes were shaped by fire, all right, but it was by human design, not sporadic lightning strikes.

          Since the last ice age, the “natural role” of fire is to be controlled by people. “Fire return intervals” and other statistical efforts to describe fire history invariably fail if they ignore human ignitions.

          (Same with the northern Rockies, but probably less so; except around fish-bearing lakes, berry fields, and camas and beargrass patches, of course.)

        • Of course, there are a great many areas where the only real option is Let-Burn. Fuels treatments in steep ground are all but impossible. Sadly, some people are quite willing to allow important wildlife areas to burn, rather than manage. When such fires destroy the habitat, preservationists don’t want to talk about it, or blame previous actions. That mindset has no benefits, and passes the buck on reality. It is sad that such people are willing to sacrifice precious endangered species habitat, in exchange for “getting their way”. We must also place blame on Judges and “ologists”, for not recognizing and understanding the “big picture”. Preserving bark beetle and arsonist habitats is clearly the wrong way to go.

          Regarding IA resources, each and every fire takes up people to monitor and control, regardless of size, terrain, fuels, etc. Once we decide to let it burn, certain realities come into play. Now, I’m not saying that designated Wilderness fires should all be suppressed. However, I AM saying that “wilderness” ( a misused term for remote areas) fires need active management and manning. It sure seems like firefighters are merely “preserving” wildfires, when they let them burn. Since meteorologists have trouble predicting TODAY’S weather, forecasting the weather nest week is extremely problematic. I simply don’t trust firefighters to safely “preserve” wildfires. It is safer to put those fires out, and be ready for the next one, or the next dozen wildfires. Also, their time could be better used cutting lines for prescribed fires, rather than squatting on Let-Burn fires for 3 weeks.

  7. You know, as I inhale smoke from Montana and western US wildfires, that has come to settle in the Denver metro area, I was thinking how we are all linked.

    There are no-brainer wilderness (or other backcountry) fires, there are obviously dangerous wilderness fires and everything in between. There are unexpected changes in weather patterns and unexpected things of all kinds.

    We have experts trained through Lessons Learned and local folks that know every gulch and every local weather pattern.

    What I hear is that “this year, due to unusual conditions, let’s (the system of experts and locals) err on the side of caution.” Election or not, funding or not, availability of resources or not, I don’t think it’s a bad idea to send a consistent message on risk this year. Given the decentralized nature of the FS, it’s otherwise difficult to get a consistent message. It is the role of leadership to set some kind of direction rather than “every unit for itself.” IMHO.

    • The message has “silly Season” written all over it. This risk is political as in let’s err on the side of caution between now and November. The weather conditions are unusual in some places, not in others and would be factored into decisions by those experts who would decide to manage a fire or go with full suppression (if they were allowed to). Those decisions should be local unless regional or national considerations such as scarcity of suppression resources dictate otherwise. I don’t think that is what is currently going on.

    • When I was in central Idaho, in 2007, there were multiple days when the wildfire smoke from northern California reached Yellowstone. The air was almost chocolate-colored. OF COURSE, firefighters are going to defend this “cash cow”. OF COURSE, conditions will change when you let fires burn for weeks on end. “Unforeseen conditions” are an unacceptable common excuse for losing containment on these dangerous gambles.

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