Firefighting Run Amok

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Today’s Seattle Times reports on a 5 million board foot timber sale conceived and consummated as a part of fighting the Wolverine Fire near Lake Chelan in Washington State. The sale, which cut a 50-mile long, 300-foot wide “community protection line” through spotted owl critical habitat and over streams, was logged primarily after rain had stopped the fire’s advance 8 miles from the Lake Wenatchee and Plains communities it was intended to protect. Contemporaneous Forest Service and FWS employees’ objections to the logging were overridden by the Wenatchee River district ranger.

Under normal circumstances, the National Environmental Policy Act would have required the Forest Service to assess this logging in an EA or EIS. But, Forest Service rules include an exception to NEPA analysis “[w]hen the responsible official determines that an emergency exists” and the actions are “urgently needed to mitigate harm to life, property, or important natural or cultural resources.” 36 CFR 220.4(b). In this instance, there is no written record of that determination having been made by “the responsible official,” or anyone else, for that matter. That’s the norm for Forest Service firefighting, which seeks to fly under NEPA’s radar using this regulation without ever following the regulation’s own terms itself. To the best of my knowledge, at no time does a Forest Service responsible official document that “an emergency exists” and that a particular action is “urgently needed.”

In the Wolverine Fire, the Forest Service’s behavior and facts on the ground belied any urgency to log this timber. If an urgent need to protect life or property had existed, the Forest Service would have warned the Lake Wenatchee and Plain communities to be prepared to evacuate. There are three levels of evacuation alert – Level 1 (Be Ready), Level 2 (Leave Soon) and Level 3 (Leave Immediately). At no time did the Forest Service put these communities on even the lowest level (Be Ready) evacuation alert. In contrast, Holden Village and Lucerne, which the Wolverine Fire actually threatened, received evacuation alerts and were evacuated.

When a wildfire threatens national forest visitors, the Forest Service also closes the area to public visitation. But here, when logging began, the Forest Service began relaxing public closures in the Wolverine Fire area, including reopening the Pacific Crest Trail to hikers.

Unaddressed in the news article is whether this 50-mile fuel break would have prevented the fire from spotting over the line. Had weather conditions been such that Lake Wenatchee or other communities actually been threatened (which they were not), it’s a fair bet that the fire could have jumped the line readily. In fact, the Forest Service warned that the Wolverine Fire might even jump Lake Chelan, which is a lot wider and less flammable!

12 Comments

  1. I’m confused. It takes years to prepare, and more to log a 5 MMbf sale. How could the Wolverine Fire have triggered a timber sale. Andy could you please try again and make some sense out of this post?

    • It may take years for the fed’s but, I on the other hand, can do this in a few days with my biggest time constraint being the 15-day waiting period for the state to sign off on my Notice of Operations. But then, I do not have the federal bureaucracy to deal with and their endless rules/regulations/red tape/appeals/courts/suits/politicians/etc.

      To be fair, it seems conceivable that, for fire-fighting purposes, the timber had to be cut and then, when the urgency of the fire was over, entirely reasonable to sell the timber. To not sell the timber would be an injustice to the tax payer.

      That agency employees would object is no surprise because there are a lot of federal land management employees who object to cutting trees. [I know a fellow who says a co-worker is proud to have stopped a number of operations on the Siuslaw NF.]

  2. Andy, I believe this decision is symptomatic of the lawlessness that is being encouraged by all the anti-government rhetoric we have been hearing over the past decade, and especially over the last week. I fear we will likely see more of this before the tide turns.

  3. Though I’ve struggled to find listeners, I’ve often pointed to this sort of thing as one of the reasons firefighting costs are growing so rapidly. Managers drag their feet on any fuels project (with or without commercial value) because they don’t want the time, expense, and potential litigation of NEPA et al. Then, as soon as a fire breaks out in the district, they pull out their wish list of management actions and make the most of their temporary vacation from NEPA.

    Having said that, there are a lot of potentially mitigating factors to help explain the decision-making in this particular incident. The Northwest was at the peak of its second consecutive massive fire season. Nationally, we were at Preparedness Level 5 with all available resources tapped out. Active-duty military support had been activated for the first time since 2006. We brought firefighters from Canada, Australia, and New Zealand to help. Washington was (and still is AFAIK) dealing with heavy criticism and a class action lawsuit following questionable decision making during the 2014 Carlton Complex fire. If the models show a realistic possibility of spread and NIFC tells you no resources are available for direct or indirect attack, it makes sense to use what you can get for contingency attack. The amount of line cut is equal to ~0.35% of the area burned by the Wolverine fire.

    Having said THAT, it does seem fairly clear (in hindsight at least) fire behavior moderated before most of the cutting was complete (although Inciweb indicates active fire behavior and red flag warnings as late as 13 September). Why did managers decide to continue cutting the line even as risk decreased? See my first paragraph.

  4. Let me see — 50 miles long by 300 feet. Clickety tickety, 2.84 square miles in total or, um, er, clickety tickety, 1818 acres, divided by five million feet is 2750 feet an acre. Hmmm.

    Seriously, what is wrong with this sale? 2750 feet an acre is not a lot of wood.

    • According to the article, it sounds like most of the hullabaloo is over a ~10 mile section of the line comprising 237 acres of heavy timber. Presumably, a large proportion of the marketable logs came from this section.

      Of course, cutting a contingency line wouldn’t be of much use if you left the section with the heaviest fuel load intact.

  5. I am glad they sold it.
    Usually they spend the money to cut it down, then just let it lay there. I imagine that is why they are making a big deal out of it. If they have just left it lay or spent more money to put in it the river or something like that I bet no one, (except the crazy guy who owns a sawmill), would of said a word.
    I have notice that their fire management practices have changed. They do a lot more cutting of timber along the “fire breaks” and roads than they use too. Might be a fire fighting move. but around here I am afraid it is just a way to eliminate road side salvage sales.

  6. The forest managers that forced this project through even after the threat of fire had subsided need to be fired. Not moved to another district, FIRED. They were bypassing the checks and balances and silencing professional experts within the agency.

    In the end, the logging will do more harm than good. Removing large trees and their canopy will make fire hazard worse not better. Large trees have thick bark that is resistant to fire and high canopies that help keep the forest cool-moist-less-windy and help suppress future ladder fuels. Significant canopy removal will make the stand hooter, dryer, windier and stimulate the growth of future surface and ladder fuels.

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