Gold-Plated Fire Service

It’s been a slow fire season for the U.S. Forest Service, which still has $0.5 billion remaining in its suppression account. With 80% of acres burned year-to-date in Alaska, where most fires are not actively worked, the Forest Service has had fewer chances to spend money than in most recent years. Only 350,000 of the nation’s 6.3 million burned acres have been located on national forests. So when things do start popping, the FS has lots of budgetary incentive to throw everything it has into the fight.

California homeowners are the beneficiaries of this profligate spending. Here are some of the services the FS is providing to those who have chosen to live deep in the woods.

Swimming Pool

Private swimming pool

Sprinklers

Customized sprinkler system

Aluminum Foil Wrap

Aluminum foil wrap

These photos are from the on-going Shasta-Trinity NF’s South Complex fire.

Meanwhile, the Forest Service bemoans the lack of dollars to manage its natural resources while Congress is scrambling to write another blank check for firefighting. Weird.

20 Comments

  1. Thanks for the post Andy-
    So, what’s the solution? The most realistic seems to be the “resilience” strategy discussed by S. Pyne in Sharon’s latest approach. I happen to be privy to the management of an active fire in the Idaho Panhandle N.F. that is currently using just this approach. See: http://inciweb.nwcg.gov/incident/4432/
    The total personnel of “58” is misleading. There are 58 hotshots on it … and a Type 3 team … and aerial support. So it’s probably closer to 100. As can be seen from the link, one can easily assume that the shots aren’t fighting fires. They’re handing out sprinklers and blivots to local landowners who are over 4 miles from a fire that has nowhere to go but down slope.
    In sum, there really is no effort to stop this fire at all. And there shouldn’t be! It doing it’s job by burning out decadent beetle kill in a mixed severity manner.

    My question is, why are the hotshots there? To protect homes? This is County problem, not a Federal problem. Thus, I come to a solution that FSEEE (and many other environmental groups) might be able to implement through concerted lobbying. I like to call it “Federalism by Fire” The FS needs to be convinced that it is in everyone’s best interest to stop protecting structures in Counties that have not enacted comprehensive WUI zoning and building codes that allow a cause of action for homeowners to pursue damages against other homeowners that aren’t in compliance.
    How about a little FSEEE interest group pressure in that direction, eh?

    • A little follow up…
      I know, I know — the party line is that the building, banking, and realty lobbies are to entrenched to ever convince Counties to pass ordinances regulating private homeowner development in the WUI. Well, let the USFS promulgate a rule indicating it will not put it’s firefighters at risk until the Counties have demonstrated that they are willing to take steps to at least mitigate some of the risk and watch the Counties step up. As soon as they realize the Fed’s are no longer there to subsidize reckless development policies that fill their coffers with additional taxes, but instead, the tax money starts flowing out of the coffers to deal with private WUI structure protection, new zoning ordinances and building codes will become commonplace.

    • We’ve seen, over and over, that Let-Burn fires, during this time of year, often escape, due to incomplete or non-existent firelines. Summer is NOT the time to burn up dead forests. We also too often hear the excuse of “unforeseen weather conditions”, and that is totally unacceptable, to me. We all know that this time of year brings in those dry cold fronts, which have winds that are sometimes difficult to predict. We KNOW that! Why do we “preserve” wildfires, under those conditions? If there is such a need to burn up fuels, why not torch them off when conditions are wetter, later in the fall?!? (Of course, it is all about the liability issue, and the desire to burn more acres, regardless of the conditions and time of year.) They seem to be more about “good burning conditions”, rather than public safety.

      And then, there are the dollar issues, when acreages burst, ten-fold, or more. (As I have addressed, elsewhere)

      Yes, I don’t want firefighters doing the defensible space work that homeowners should have done. We saw that on the Blacks Fire, a few years ago. If the local county and State fire guys want to do that, then that is their deal. If it is not safe to save a mansion adjacent to the Forest Service boundary, then let it burn. (Remember the Acorn Fire, where fistfights broke out?)

      • Meh. Can’t say I completely agree with the blanket statement “Summer is NOT the time to burn up dead forests.” It sounds like you’re trying to make the world black and white when it’s a thousand shades of grey. What works for one fire may not for another. For example, the Parker Ridge fire I just commented on is not only a good candidate to let burn because of disease issues, it is a terrible candidate to fight due to safety issues. The trees there have been standing dead for years now with their root systems rotted out. Perhaps you’d enjoy delivering the news of Mike Hallenbeck’s death to his family. He was the firefighter recently killed in California due to a falling snag. If there are black and white lines to be drawn they should be drawn to protect firefighter’s lives. Private timber resources and people’s ill advised home building adventures are not worth this kid’s life. I don’t care if the damn fire blows up to Yosemite proportions. It’s NOT worth it.

        • Again, the larger the fire gets and the longer it burns, the more chance for fatalities, too. In fact, it is inevitable that accidents will occur on fires left to burn for 3 weeks, or longer. It’s a trade-off. Of course, I didn’t say to do direct line building, either, as you imply. If it is unsafe to put people up there, then there are always the aerial resources. The goal should not be to burn tons of acres, in the middle of the summer, when initial attack resources are needed, elsewhere. (And, YES, that is the thinking of many Fire “Management” folks!) They LOVE wildfires, and they seem to want to grow, nurture and preserve them, instead of restricting them. Of course, they like to always say, “We need to get more fire on the ground” (meaning uncontrolled fires). Let-Burn wildfires are almost never controlled or contained, in any way. They just “wing it”, and spout dubious “resource benefits”.

          • And as I posted, that is exactly what they’re doing on the Parker Ridge fire Larry. So what’s the fuss? My original post, in response to Andy’s original post, was what in blue blazes are a bunch of hot shots doing protecting structures four miles from a fire??? It’s ludicrous and has to stop. However, I don’t hear a lot of ideas being floated out there to confront the problem. Thus, I offered some. In my mind, that’s what this blog should be about — ideas, policy, planning, solutions — not the polarized bickering that too often occurs.

            • Frankly, I just don’t think it is worth the risk. From the Incident Report: “Thunderstorms are forecast for Wednesday and Thursday this week with increasingly hot & unstable conditions. A cold front passage is anticipated Thursday night into Friday with strong winds.” Just as I explained, eh?

              If it is unsafe to fight with people, then we need more aircraft. I guess the thing I have the most heartburn over is their desire to burn more acres, during dangerous conditions, in the name of “resource benefits”. If that issue is so important, why not do that burning in the fall, when conditions are wetter and suppression resources are plentiful? I think we know the answer to that but, the fire folks don’t want to explain it to the public.

              So, in short, remove the “resource benefits” thing from the safety aspect. If you want to burn up dead forests, do it “under prescription”, during the fall. Not in the middle of summer. I don’t give a DAMN about burning conditions! If it doesn’t burn well, try again, next fall! (There’s MY solution!)

          • Again, I’m not convinced. If “In fact, it is inevitable that accidents will occur on fires left to burn for 3 weeks, or longer” then, in fact, there should be some statistics to support your assertion. But you know what? Somehow I don’t hear much news about wildland fires killing many civilians. I do hear a lot of news about firefighters being killed to protect irresponsible civilian’s houses that could just as well be left to burn. And as for aerial resources, wow, that sure is safe. At least one aircraft goes down every year: https://www.nifc.gov/safety/safety_documents/Fatalities-by-Year.pdf. I personally only missed a serious mishap by two firefighters while waiting to be extracted from a ridge top after a smoke chaser. The chopper had one skid on a knife ridge at 7000ft while it took on four of my buddies. It lifted off about ten feet, lost all lift, smashed back down on to the ridge and skidded backward 20 feet down a 45 degree granite outcropping before — god knows why — it came to rest without anyone being injured. Yeah, safe. You sound like a Yale politician sending troops off to war without ever having fired a gun.
            And while yes, there is a certain rush to fighting fire, to say that “Fire Management folks LOVE wildfires, and seem to want to grow, nurture and preserve them, instead of restricting them” is to be naive. I’ve fought a lot of forest fires Larry, have you? I used to love it for about the first 18 hours and then it became a rote, stressful, arduous, dirty job that leaves you counting the hours to get your paycheck so you can go home. Yup, a real love story alright.

            Finally, when you say that “they like to always say, ‘We need to get more fire on the ground’ (meaning uncontrolled fires)” you are just plain wrong. “They” mean controlled fires. Do you know how I know who “they” are? I’m married to a USFS forester. “She” definitely says there needs to be more controlled fire on the ground.

            • And, yes, Let-Burn fires do not qualify as “controlled”. Soooo, why do they want more Let-Burn fires?!?! Because they have bought into the fallacy of “resource benefits”. Remember the Station Fire? Two fatalities. I have a friend who was burned over in fire camp. My Uncle died from the smoke of one of those large San Diego wildfires. The last I looked, aerial resources, generally, fly everyday on campaign fires, with another chance to “roll the dice”, every day the fire burns. Then there’s many other fatalities associated with wildfires. (Yes, driving or flying to the fire counts!) Then, there is also the many close calls, too. As fatigue grows, the danger of accidents increases. Remember, the Yarnall Hill tragedy happened many days into a fire that stayed small during the first few days. Imagine if that fire had been aggressively fought on the first two days.

              Yes, I have been an engine crew person, a handcrew person, flown by helicopter into Wilderness fires, been the first firefighter into a wildfire and many other fire duties. I was on the frontlines during the Siege of 1987. I’ve been run off of firelines, into safety zones. Yeah, I’ve been there before. I’ve also seen the destruction of wildfires, and not very much “resource benefits”.

              You’re comparing apples with oranges. Again, I’m not saying we should put people on steep slopes, in heavy fuels with no safety zones. We should not be letting fires get a running start. Sure, if you have a good line around the fire, you let the unburned fuel burnout. However, you cannot expect to hold a line when you let it get big and intense. Again, using the Westfork Complex as an example, the fire was only 150 acres after NINE whole days. Was it really “unsafe” to fight such a fire?!? I really doubt it. Of course, the conditions changed, as they always do, and the fire blew up into an uncontrollable firestorm, costing $100,000,000. THAT is what I am arguing against. Rarely do Let-Burn fires stay small and manageable. Why do we keep making the same mistakes, that drain firefighting budgets? The reasoning for Let-Burn fires is all tied to those “resource benefits”. Not safety. We don’t see an Agency like CalFire letting fires burn, for “resource benefits”.

              It is so simple. If it is not safe to fight it, wait until it is, then fight it. While your are waiting, make those firelines bigger and better. Reduce intensity. Cut it off from large fuels sources. Basic stuff. Again, summer is not the time to burn up dead forests on purpose…. or by accident… or accidentally on purpose.

          • Larry says “the larger the fire gets and the longer it burns, the more chance of fatalities, too.” Although this seems intuitive, the facts don’t support it. Burn-over fatalities, for example, are most common during the transition from initial to extended attack, e.g., 30-Mile and South Canyon fires. This year’s most recent fatality was during initial attack, too.

            The statistics of firefighting also help explain why fatalities are most common during initial attack when fires are small. About 97% of ignitions are controlled before they exceed 300 acres. That means the vast preponderance of fatality opportunities are small fires. Psychologically, since these fires all look “small” to firefighters they appear to pose less risk than the big project fires that are rampaging across the landscape. Underestimating a small fire’s risk accounts for most burn-over fatalities.

            • I tend to think that inexperience is factored into the Tahoe area fatality. He had been on the job for just a few weeks. And, remember, the Forest Service appears to be the “minor leagues” of firefighting, with experienced people leaving for better careers, elsewhere. In the LA Basin, Forest Service firefighters get an extra boost in salary, to try and hold on to experience. It doesn’t appear to be working that well but, scaling back pay rates seems unlikely to happen. It’s a symptom of a bigger problem, involving careers versus jobs.

              On really big fires, the emphasis seems to be in backing off and waiting, instead of “Fighting fire aggressively…”. In these tragic incidents, we often see repeated mistakes of not following the standard firefighting orders (like cutting line downhill towards a fire).

              Again, I am not saying we need to disregard safety. However, where is the safety issue when fire breaks, hazard tree mitigation and thinning projects are rejected by eco-groups?

                • It is called “Locality Pay”, which differs in certain areas. I’m not really sure if this practice is still in force but, there has been an ongoing concern about losing trained personnel to State, County and City firefighting organizations. At one time they did boost the locality pay of all Forestry Techs in the Los Padres, Angeles, San Bernardino and Cleveland National Forests. I guess one could look at the current pay rates in job announcements for comparison.

  2. I feel like everyone is missing the importance of this issue. Yes, we should be conservative with monetary expenditures and certainly not spending taxpayer money to benefit private individuals that have chosen to live in locations where they know the hazards. The important thing that large catastrophic destroy the natural diversity that original existed and set us up for more of the same in the future. Our goal has to be to improve diversity not make every acre the same by treating vast areas with the same prescription. When you attempt to suppress a fire you search for the unique differences in vegetation, topographic features and soil characteristics to locate your defensive lines. It is that diversity that needs to be emphasized in all management prescriptions so as to reduce the risk in the future.

  3. I agree that USFS shouldn’t be taking the place of county fire personnel or state and county fire-safe regulations. It is misappropriation of Federal funds and masks local problems. Hotshot should definitely not be out providing outreach and material goods. USFS should be sending a bill to landowners.
    Fire ecology only works where a mosaic of fire types develop. Wildland fire is not the opportunity to practice ecological burning because it generally follows that any mosaic that develops is lost during mop up .
    The comment that began this string was centered on the fire organization’s largesse in the face of budgets and needs. For any other federal organization, giving federal property away is grounds for dismissal. So who signed for the release of property? Perhaps the fire organization should do a better job of accounting for purchases before an unfriendly media does.

    • Ironically, as a temporary employee, I was pressed into service as a Fire Camp Manager (for a few days), during the Siege of 1987. I took the opportunity to fully restock the District’s fire cache, to deal with the 40 wildfires we had in just 3 days. Then, I was replaced by some guy from New Mexico, and I flew into a Wilderness fire, for a few days. I had a bird’s eye view of the large Let-Burn fire escaping containment, multiple times, before leaving the brush and lava rock of the Hat Creek Valley, to burning timber on top of the Hat Creek Rim. Here is what that area looks like, today

      https://www.google.com/maps/@40.7949159,-121.4396956,4756m/data=!3m1!1e3?hl=en

  4. Eric, I thought that there was some tie between states and counties having CWPPs and getting federal funding (for some fire stuff, maybe support to local fire folks, but not affecting federal suppression policies?). So I think there may have been a tie between these things that was tried at one time.

    Maybe others know more of this history???

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