Wildfire risk rating now available for 145 million properties in the United States: from Wildfire Today

Bill Gabbert of Wildfire Today has an interesting post on a new Wildfire Risk map.  Some commenters were not too impressed based on their ground-truthing.  Wouldn’t it be wise to “ground-truth before touting the accuracy of maps” rather than putting them out and telling everyone they’re correct? Is that way crazy? So Wildfire Today did some testing and so did the commenters. The results were generally not good.

It seems like modelers are driving way beyond their headlights… and acting if their models are somehow.. real.. Here’s what it says.. “Past events, current risks, and future projections based on peer-reviewed research from the world’s leading flood, fire, and climate modelers.”

Who is working at First Street Foundation? Not one of the usual fire suspects. Check them out. Their model looks very impressive and incorporates many variables .. check those out here.

Here’s their argument for why they exist:

What makes First Street Foundation unique

  • Custom built models to calculate property-level climate risk statistics
  • Transparent, peer-reviewed methodology that’s proven against real environmental events
  • Validated by millions of users every day who continuously improve the data and science
  • Easy-to-understand experience that’s trusted by industry leaders
  • Building details and structure characteristics are used to customize information for your specific property

Institutional real estate investors and insurers have long had access to environmental risk data from for-profit oligopolies who use non-transparent methodologies that do not advance science and which limit access to risk information for the country. Because of this, the majority of Americans have relied on sources such as the Federal Emergency Management Agency (FEMA), the United States Forest Service, and other public agencies to understand their risk. However, these agencies are not tasked with defining risk for individual properties, do not consider how environmental changes impact that risk in the near-term future, and are often unable to incorporate the latest science due to the bureaucratic and regulatory restrictions within which they operate, leaving millions of households and property owners unaware of their true risk.

There has long been an urgent need for accurate, property-level, publicly available environmental risk information in the United States based on open source, peer reviewed science. In a mission to fill that need, First Street Foundation has built a team of leading modelers, researchers, and data scientists to develop the first comprehensive, publicly available risk models in the United States. Beginning with flood and now wildfire, First Street works to correct the asymmetry of information in the market, empowering Americans to protect their most valuable asset–their home while working with industry and government entities to inform them of their risk.

It’s great that they’re not a “for-profit oligopoly” but who funds them and what are their interests? I can’t really tell based on this.. because 990 reading is not in my skill set.

My house for example, was always at risk of wildfire. Because we live in a dry climate and things.. dry out. That’s probably why my insurance company has contracted with a private structure protection outfit.   When fires start (mostly due to human ignition) the key variables are 1) wind, 2)  fuel (houses, grass grazed or not, trees?)   3) how fast suppression folks get there, 3) if it’s too windy for air suppression resources, 4) how much grazing reduced fuels, 5) wind (did I mention that?). So wind is a big deal.

What about wind and climate change?  That appears to be a can of worms, partially because it seems like researchers are interested in questions like “will changes in wind speed affect energy from wind turbines?” And also because.. it doesn’t seem like they know.  I did find a paper from 2019..by Jeong and Sushama.. “Projected Changes to Mean and Extreme Surface Wind Speeds for North America Based on Regional Climate Model Simulations.”

The IPCC [27], however, reported that projected changes to extreme wind speeds based on GCMs are more uncertain than those to mean wind speeds because of relatively fewer studies on extreme wind speeds and the difficulties in simulating these events with GCMs.

And yet, the folks at First Street Foundation tell me..that my house will go from .07 to .22 in 30 years.  But they haven’t actually modelled, nor can they, the most critical factors. As they say..

Risk Factor™️ is most powerful when used in conjunction with the FEMA flood maps, WildFire.org, and other available state and local risk resources. Risk Factor should be viewed as complementary to the federally adopted risk maps for a community, which need to be used for building and permitting purposes. Risk Factor™️ allows individuals to easily view risk information at the property level, and provides useful information on potential actions to mitigate risk. More information on each community’s risk maps and mitigation plans, however, can be best obtained by contacting the community’s floodplain manager or local fire department.

The question is does is add any value to federally adopted risk maps?  What does the map tell you about your house, and does it make sense?

They Seem Like Nice Ladies..But: The Logic of Producing Essential Things Elsewhere (For the Environment?)

TEHRAN – Iranian Oil Minister Bijan Namdar Zanganeh has issued an order, paving the way for women with high capabilities to boost presence in the oil industry

..this is what is wrong with the conservation movement. It has a clear conscience….To the conservation movement, it is only production that causes environmental degradation; the consumption that supports the production is rarely acknowledged to be at fault. The ideal of the run-of-the-mill conservationist is to impose restraints upon production without limiting consumption or burdening the consciences of consumers.
— Wendell Berry

This is a great gig.  You can use mega-amounts of fossil fuels in your products (like, say the Outdoor Recreation industry) and pretend you have the moral high ground if you are against production in our country.  You can make zillions of bucks of people offshoring manufacturing of your products- and then critique “greedy” producers of the material you use.  I still don’t get “domestic oil and gas hate”.. who’s behind it, and what it’s really about.  There seems to be a steady stream of “they are bad” articles coming out, especially from sources allied with a certain political party.  So yes, there seems to be some kind of organized campaign against these folks.  But just the domestic ones (seems equally true in Britain).  So a person has to wonder what the end game of this is really about.

I don’t want to be accused of listening to Fox News (the horror!) but I had read somewhere about the idea that Russia had been funding some ENGOs in Europe with the idea of making them more reliant on Russian sources of energy.  And Fox News had a story so here it is.

So I said to myself “how could I ever figure out the truth here? Did they or didn’t they?”  And then I had a revelation… it doesn’t matter who funds groups if their goals are the same. Keep it in the ground (here) is fundamentally the same as extract it (there).  Who wins? other countries of Questionable Human Rights and Environmental Records. Who loses? Our workers and communities.   Or is it just that if the environmental and human rights impacts occur elsewhere, we can ignore them more readily? I hope that is not the case.

On thing we learned from Covid is that some things are more essential than others. So let’s take a look at where the fundamentals of our economy (fossil fuels) are currently coming from.

In the every-handy EIA information, we can find a list of countries we import oil from. This Politico story from March talked about outreach to Venezuela, the Saudis and Iran (see the nice ladies in the photo above), due to the desire to stop Russian imports. As the story says,

“The U.S. has long had complicated and tense relationships with all three countries, which in recent years have been accused of everything from election fraud to human rights atrocities.”

Given all that, and the fact that imported oil has arguably a larger environmental impact, why wouldn’t we want to produce as much domestically as possible and import the rest from the most agreeable and socially and environmentally responsible countries? It seems logical to me.  We don’t seem to try to offshore other industries due to their impacts on the environment.. in fact, there is a Buy America push by the Biden Administration. So what did the oil and gas workers do to get left out?

For a long time, some groups have been pushing the Biden Admin to stop oil and gas leasing on federal lands.  In fact, he felt the need to commit to that during the campaign, despite the fact that many argue that it is illegal.  As part of that campaign, this  USGS study, often mischaracterized (even by an E&E News headline in Scientific American; I expect better from them) as “Fossil Fuel Extraction on Public Lands Produces One Quarter of U.S. Emissions” played a large role, so much so that it is frequently used in news stories as if it were a fact that everyone understands.

Whereas the study actually studies emissions not just from extraction but from use, see page 3 under introduction.

Emissions are produced through two processes: (1) the combustion of fuel for electricity generation, mechanical work, heating, or use as a feedstock and (2) the fugitive emission of gases during the processes of extracting and moving fuel.

Which we can imagine would have more or less the same effect (or possibly greater?) to the atmosphere from other countries, depending on the various attributes of the resource,  extraction technologies and regulations, and transportation to the US.  Because if it’s about carbon emissions, the atmosphere there is the same one as here.

One of the first symbolic actions in the new Administration was to stop the Keystone Pipeline from Canada (from whom we import oil and uranium).  It’s almost as if part of that symbolism was pledge of fealty to party investors by dissing a partner vital to our own energy security.

And what technologies exist to reduce climate change? Those requiring uranium (also imported) and other rare earths, often found on federal land in the US.  For example

Uranium originating in Kazakhstan, Russia, and Uzbekistan accounted for 47% of total uranium purchased by U.S. COOs in 2020. Canadian-origin uranium and Australian-originan uranium together accounted for 34% (Table 3).

Many of these minerals occur on western federal lands, potentially running into obstacles in the efforts to “conserve” them.   That means that it’s OK to encourage thousands of tourists to come to a new “protected” area, but not OK to mine, or have drill rigs. Personally, drill rigs don’t bother me when I recreate. Crowds are much worse in my opinion.  Unleashed dogs chasing wildlife and all that- seem to bother say, deer or antelope, more than drill rigs (which tend to stay in the same place over time), from what I’ve observed.

It seems to me that there are certain projects like the Keystone Pipeline, Bears Ears, and the idea of stopping oil and gas leasing on federal lands (I think mostly onshore, but who knows?)  that from my environmental perspective, have mostly symbolic value.  So.. who determined that these specific issues were so important?  And what does that portend for domestic production of necessary post-fossil fuel material? Is “protecting our landscapes” more important than national security, and whose interests does that calculation serve? Because I don’t remember being asked.

Next Post: Are (Domestic) Oil and Gas Folks Really That Bad?

Opponents of conservation invoke NEPA

Image: Scout Environmental

I have made several comments recently about situations that should not trigger NEPA procedures because they do not have adverse effects on the physical environment.  I became interested in this topic in 1986 when I noticed that development interests were arguing that forest plans adversely affected “community stability” (a euphemism for social and economic impacts), and this was being addressed as an “environmental” impact in NEPA documents.  Given that the goal of NEPA was better environmental protection, I could see how inferring that social and economic impacts of protecting the environment must be addressed through a NEPA process could lead to less environmental protection.

As an example of that actually happening, let’s talk about the proposal to conserve 30% of the nation’s lands (America the Beautiful/30 x 30).

Property rights advocate Margaret Byfield’s strategy for defeating the Biden administration’s aggressive conservation pledge comes with a twist: She wants landowners to embrace the nation’s bedrock environmental law.

Byfield, the executive director of American Stewards of Liberty — and daughter of the late E. Wayne Hage, an icon of the Sagebrush Rebellion II movement — sees the National Environmental Policy Act as a cudgel in her campaign to upend the “America the Beautiful” program.

But Byfield emphasized Friday that the strategy must also embrace NEPA, arguing the Biden administration has skirted its responsibility to execute “a programmatic” environmental review of its “America the Beautiful” plan.

“This is the environmentalists’ great law that they use as a weapon against productive agriculture and actually any kind of project,” Byfield said. “They use it to slow down and stop projects, they use it as a weapon.”

Byfield asserted that the Biden administration has skirted NEPA by moving forward without an environmental review.

“They also know if they do NEPA right, it’s going to take them three, maybe six, maybe nine, maybe 10 years to complete the study the way they make us do it. So why aren’t they living under the same laws they force us to follow?” she asked.

The obvious reason is that NEPA was not passed by Congress to protect “agriculture and actually any kind of project.”  The ASL seeks to turn NEPA on its head.  The interesting thing is that the Center for Biological Diversity did not mention this, instead stating that the President and executive orders are exempt from NEPA, and actually inferred that the future site-specific conservation actions could require NEPA procedures.

The law regarding application of NEPA to non-environmental consequences of environmental protection measures is less clear than it should be.  The Supreme Court framed this question in Metropolitan Edison Co. v. People Against Nuclear Energy in 1983

But we think the context of the statute shows that Congress was talking about the physical environment — the world around us, so to speak. NEPA was designed to promote human welfare by alerting governmental actors to the effect of their proposed actions on the physical environment.

But, here’s a confusing discussion by the Ninth Circuit in the 2000 case of Kootenai Tribe of Idaho v. Veneman, which challenged the procedures used to adopt the Forest Service’s Roadless Area Conservation Act (the “Roadless Rule”).  (Other plaintiffs in this case were Boise Cascade Corporation, motorized recreation groups, livestock companies, and two Idaho counties.)  The Forest Service did not appeal the district court’s injunction of the Roadless Rule, but an appeal was filed by environmental intervenors, who argued that the Rule did not alter the natural physical environment and require an EIS under NEPA.

Under NEPA, a federal agency is required to prepare an EIS for all “major Federal actions significantly affecting the quality of the human environment.” 42 U.S.C. § 4332(2)(C) (emphasis added). “Human environment,” in turn, is defined in NEPA’s implementing regulations as “the natural and physical environment and the relationship of people with that environment.” 40 C.F.R. § 1508.14. See also Wetlands, 222 F.3d at 1105. The dispositive issue here is whether the Roadless Rule sufficiently affected the quality of the human environment to trigger the procedural requirements of NEPA.

We have explained that NEPA procedures do not apply to federal actions that maintain the environmental status quo. See Burbank Anti-Noise Group v. Goldschmidt, 623 F.2d 115, 116-17 (9th Cir.1981) (NEPA does not apply when an agency financed the purchase of an airport already built); Nat’l Wildlife Fed’n v. Espy, 45 F.3d 1337, 1343-1344 (9th Cir. 1995) (NEPA does not apply when agency transferred title to wetlands already used for grazing); Bicycle Trails Council of Marin v. Babbitt, 82 F.3d 1445, 1446 (9th Cir.1996) (closure of bicycle trails does not trigger EIS). In other words, “an EIS is not required in order to leave nature alone.” Douglas County, 48 F.3d at 1505 (citation and internal quotation marks omitted). The touchstone of the EIS requirement is whether the change in the status quo is “effected by humans.” Id. at 1506.

Because human intervention, in the form of forest management, has been part of the fabric of our national forests for so long, we conclude that, in the context of this unusual case, the reduction in human intervention that would result from the Roadless Rule actually does alter the environmental status quo.

This perverse rationale (for this “unusual” case) has no citations, and I think it is only justified by a desire to decide the case on the merits of the EIS (which it upheld) rather than on a procedural question.  Moreover, it ignores the additional requirement that the environmental status quo must be adversely affected (the term “adverse” is used many times in the CEQ NEPA regulations).  Here is a 2012 paper on “beneficial effects” under NEPA.  Its conclusion echoes my concern from 35 years ago (which has become a reality).

Third, the policies underlying NEPA are in tension with a Beneficial Impact EIS requirement. Such a requirement would produce unnecessary cost and delay for environmentally beneficial projects and create perverse incentives for federal agencies without any compensating informational benefits.

Agencies that are using NEPA to justify delaying environmental protection are probably not violating the words of NEPA, but clearly violate its spirit.  Moreover, anti-environmental plaintiffs should not be able use the courts to facilitate this violation.

Permanentizing Roadless? House Bill 279

I’m working on getting a subscription to Bloomberg Law for TSW so all I could get was this snippet.

Permanent roadless area protection is vital to preserving drinking water supplies, cutting wildfire risk, and saving Alaska’s oldest forests, Democrats said during a House Natural Resources subcommittee hearing on Wednesday.

Debate centered on a bill (H.R. 279) that would codify an existing US Forest Service rule prohibiting road building across swaths of national forests nationwide—Democrats’ backlash to a Trump administration decision to lift roadless protections in Alaska. That decisions allowed logging or development across 9.3 million acres of southeast Alaska’s Tongass National Forest.

Perhaps someone could post the rest of the story?  I happen to have spent a great deal of time working on Roadless  here in Colorado, and my experience tells me that the relationship between cutting wildfire risk and roadless is fairly complex.    In fact, that’s why after years of laborious work and public involvement, the Colorado Rule deals specifically with hazardous fuel treatments (because, yes, roadless areas can be close to communities and occur in wildfire-prone areas).  From the Key Elements summary of the final Rule allowed temp roads and specified that hazardous fuel treatments were allowed (otherwise you had to argue about uncharacteristic-ness):

Community Wildfire Protection
Provides for hazardous fuel treatment by allowing tree cutting and temporary road construction in a defined area of ½ mile from the boundary of an at-risk community, called a community protection zone (CPZ) in the final Rule.

If specific ground conditions are met, and a Community Wildfire Protection Plan (CWPP) is in place, that boundary may be extended to 1 ½ miles, but temporary roads are prohibited in this additional mile.

Now the Colorado Roadless Rule was signed under the administrations of Governor Hickenlooper (of Colorado, currently Senator) and President Obama.  So it’s interesting that current House Dems would say that codifying the 2001 Rule is vital to “cutting wildfire risk.”  It may sound plausible but it’s not actually true.

Yes, perhaps the bill is performative virtue-signalling to certain groups and will never get anywhere, but I think it’s important to query the ideas behind it and the marketing thereof.


USFS: 2.87 billion BF in 2021

From an article in Timber Harvesting magazine….

U.S. Forest Service reported it sold 2.87 billion BF of timber sales (compared to the agency target of 4 billion BF) in fiscal 2021, a decrease from 3.2 billion BF in FY 2020, according to the agency’s Fiscal Year 2023 Budget Justification document. The sold volume was valued at $197 million.

The decrease in sales was primarily due to limited staff capacity and no-bid sales, according to the agency, adding that the COVID-19 pandemic limited the mobility of timber crews, and field work continued to be difficult to accomplish due to the large fire activity across the Western U.S. Many employees that usually work to prepare timber sales were assigned to wildfire suppression and support. Recovery efforts after large fires, including stabilization work and hazard tree removal, necessitated the involvement of the staff who would typically work on preparing and administering timber sales, the agency stated.

Bipartisan Bunch of Senators and Representatives Weigh in on Wildland Firefighter Series and Pay

Quoting Wildfire Today:

A letter signed by a bipartisan group of 28 lawmakers urged that steps be taken to avert critical staffing shortages in the wildland firefighting workforce. The document was sent May 10 to the Director of the Office of Personnel Management (OPM) and the Secretaries of the Departments of Agriculture and the Interior.

Here’s an excerpt from the letter.

I particularly liked..”arbitrary policies (OPM) are driving recruitment and retention problems.”

The Office of Personnel Management (OPM) must use its authority to stop further attrition in the wildland firefighting workforce. OPM has the authority for special pay rates to address staffing problems caused by significantly higher non-Federal pay rates, the remoteness of the area or location involved, the undesirability of the working conditions or nature of the work involved, and any other circumstances OPM considers appropriate. All these criteria appear applicable in this case.

We recognize that OPM, in collaboration with USFS and the Department of Interior (DOI), is in the process of establishing a new “wildland firefighter” occupational series as required under the Infrastructure Investment and Jobs Act. This job series is an important step towards a sustainable livelihood and career path for federal wildland firefighters, with other steps to include housing support, modified scheduling, and leave policies that reflect the unique nature of wildland firefighting. A new job series that maintains the status quo could lead to a surge in resignations just as fire season begins, and OPM must be clear about how it will use special authorities in the near term to address any shortcoming in the new wildland firefighter occupational series.

Given OPM’s function as “the chief human resources agency and personnel policy manager for the Federal Government,” we wish to underscore some of the factors driving attrition in the wildland firefighting workforce, and their long-term implications. Pay is the most important issue, as it is in many professions and sectors of the economy. However, OPM policies and the challenges of being a wildland firefighter compound financial stress in unique and damaging ways. For example, federal wildland firefighters are paid by the hour, even when they are at an incident and miles from the nearest population center and effectively working. Many state and local firefighters are paid on a “portal-to-portal” basis, meaning 24 hours a day, from the time they are assigned to a wildland fire until the time they return, and are reimbursed on that basis by the federal government. Insisting on scheduling and paying federal wildland firefighters in the same manner as other federal employees, rather than other wildland firefighters, is one way in which arbitrary policies are driving recruitment and retention problems.

As President Biden said last year, “the only thing that really matters is if there’s enough firefighters.” The land management agencies have lost thousands of wildland firefighters in just the last few years. The federal wildland firefighting workforce is entering a pivotal stretch with the end of OPM’s classification review process and the beginning of fire season. The Administration must stop attrition and commit to rebuilding the ranks of our firefighting service.

This starts with increases in pay and benefits. The situation is urgent, and we stand ready to work with you to ensure our federal wildland firefighters are fully supported and compensated.

America’s Outdoor Recreation Act of 2022: Summary by Kyle Dunphey

Lineup to get into Arches -Salt Lake City Tribune photo

Super article by Kyle Dunphey of the Deseret News. A bipartisan bill (cosponsors Manchin and Barasso) from an easterner and a westerner.  The story has links to the bill summary, who’s for and who’s “agin”, and the below summary of ten key takeaways from the 155-page bill.

So National Parks count as “protected” areas under 30 x 30. But NPS employees and the National Parks Conservation Association are worried about too many people causing environmental degradation.  The logical thing is to think.. maybe they shouldn’t count at some point, then, or some places within a larger park shouldn’t count as “protected”.  Perhaps Parks should become certified to a “protected from humans certification” like the recreation equivalent of FSC or SFI before they can count toward “protection” goals, with third party verification?  Anyway, here’s the story.


More parking

“Lot Full” signs are in high demand at Arches National Park, where increasing visitation has resulted in frequent park closures and popular trailheads overflowing with tourists.

One of the provisions in the bill is to increase parking, mainly for land managed by the Forest Service and Department of the Interior.

But due to a deferred maintenance backlog, which refers to projects that have been postponed due to budget constraints, the bill allows agencies to partner with the private sector “and lease non-federal land for parking opportunities.”

Parking is a hot debate, at least for National Park advocates, who worry that more parking will lead to more visitors that could result in more environmental degradation, search and rescue calls, wildfire risk and traffic.

“We could totally build a five-story parking garage but do you want to add that many people to the trail? What would that do to the experience while you’re hiking if you’re shoulder to shoulder and you’re waiting hours to get a picture under the arch,” ranger Melissa Hulls, visitor and resource protection supervisor at Arches, told the Deseret News in September.

Target shooting

The Forest Service and the Bureau of Land Management will be required to maintain at least one designated shooting range for each district under the bill. The ranges will not require a fee.

The bill piggybacks on former Interior Secretary Ryan Zinke’s wish to see more shooting ranges in national monuments. But some environmental groups warn that more target shooting could lead to increased wildfire risk and vandalism.

‘Long distance’ biking

Under the bill, federal land management agencies — specifically the National Park Service, the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service, the Bureau of Land Management, the Bureau of Reclamation and the Forest Service — need to identify at least 10 long distance bike trails, defined as a system with at least 80 miles on federal land.

Agencies will also need to identify 10 additional areas for trail development. For existing trails, the agencies need to “publish and distribute maps, install signage, and issue promotional materials.”

Broadband infrastructure

In a push to expand internet access on public land and rural communities, the BLM and Forest Service would be directed to identify “high priority” recreation sites that lack broadband.

The agencies would then estimate the cost to develop broadband infrastructure, and if necessary, partner with the Rural Utilities Service under the Department of Agriculture.

The National Parks and Conservation Association, however, says the provision raises concerns, and agencies need to first understand “the extensive use of and impacts to natural and cultural resources to build and maintain broadband at recreation sites within the National Park system.”

Defining ‘peak season’

Moab locals can confirm — the busy season is growing, inching into traditionally slow parts of the year.

In an effort to “better understand visitor trends” the Department of the Interior would be directed to examine the impact seasonal closures have on local tax revenue, while looking for opportunities to extend the time certain public lands are open.

“This section directs the agencies to make efforts to minimize seasonal closures on lands where such closures prevent recreational activities that provide economic benefits,” the bill reads.

Hotels and housing for gateway communities

Moab locals can also confirm that finding housing in the southern Utah gateway, whether as a renter or buyer, is a monumental task. Housing shortages in mountain towns and park-adjacent communities are driving locals out and resulting in labor shortages.

Under Manchin and Barrasso’s bill, the Department of the Interior will identify solutions to housing shortages, working with local governments, housing authorities, trade associations and nonprofits.

The bill also instructs the department to “provide financial and technical assistance to gateway communities to establish, operate, or expand infrastructure to accommodate visitation including hotels and restaurants.”

Climbing on Forest Service land

A brief provision in the bill says the Forest Service will “issue guidance” on climbing management in designated wilderness areas.

The bill is not entirely clear on what that “guidance” will be, but gives the agency 18 months to develop a plan that will consider the Wilderness Act of 1964 and the “appropriateness” of recreational climbing, placement and maintenance of fixed anchors and the use of other climbing equipment.

New digital tools

Several provisions in the bill seek to improve access to real-time data, permits and reservations. Consider this:

  • The National Parks and Federal Land Pass would be available in digital format.
  • Through a pilot program, the public could obtain real-time visitation data on federal land.
  • Land agencies would experiment with new, more intuitive, ways to tally visitor data.
  • Tourists who reserved visitation to public lands that require reservations or permits, could notify agencies of certain days they will not use — those days are then granted to guide companies and the unguided public.

Modernize campgrounds

Again turning to the public-private partnership model, the bill requires agencies to develop a pilot program to modernize campgrounds and buildings on Forest Service and BLM land.

Agreements with private companies would not last more than 30 years, and within three years of obtaining land use authorization, the company is required to spend at least $2 million on improvements.

Filming and photographing public lands

Buried at the end of the bill is a provision that would “modernize film and photography permitting on public lands to account for changing technology and social media.”

Production crews of less than eight people would not have to obtain a permit. Any filming or photography “that is merely incidental to an otherwise authorized or allowable activity” will not need a permit, either.

As always, readers are invited to link to their own organizations’ bill analysis.

Forest Service Defeats Appeal for Climate Update to Forest Plan

This sounds like an interesting case… does anyone have access to Bloomberg Law and can post excerpts from their story? Thanks to Nick Smith for this snippet. Ah… plans.

The U.S. Forest Service doesn’t need to update a plan for a Montana forest to account for climate change because the plan doesn’t qualify as an ongoing federal action, the Ninth Circuit affirmed Friday. The ruling in the U.S. Court of Appeals for the Ninth Circuit came as a loss to the Cottonwood Environmental Law Center. The group argued the agency was required to update the 1987 Gallatin Forest Plan after it recognized in 2012 that forest plans needed updates due to climate change.

But doesn’t the Custer-Gallatin have a 2020 plan? Perhaps someone can explain..

Prescribed Fire Escapes and Building Trust: Three New Mexico News Stories

It appears that Peter Williams and I are coasting along the stream of the Zeitgeist as I saw two stories this morning (from Nick Smith, thank you!) specifically on building trust around prescribed fire.

This is based on the Hermits Peak Fire in New Mexico, a prescribed burn that got out of control and merged with the Calf Canyon Fire. Here’s one story.

Congresswoman Teresa Leger Fernandez sent the Forest Service a letter, asking if there has been an investigation, what protocols are in place to prevent a controlled burn from getting out of control, and when those protocols were last updated.

Sen. Luján said lawmakers on Capitol Hill are in the process of making changes as well.

“There are a few pieces of legislation that the members of the delegation are working on,” he said. They specifically aim to change how the federal agency decides an area is safe for a prescribed burn.

“Who allowed that fire to take place and everything, that I’ve been told, is that when that decision was made to do the prescribed burn, that based on the model, it met the parameters, it was that it was safe—well, clearly, it wasn’t!”” Sen. Luján said. “One thing that doesn’t make any sense to me is we have a federal agency who’s responsible for weather predictions NOAA, why wouldn’t we just use their weather predictions to be able to make decisions like this as well, that’s just one example.”

Here’s an editorial in the Santa Fe New Mexican. It sounds like they are calling for increased transparency around procedures.

Gov. Michelle Lujan Grisham this week called for the federal government to change its rules about prescribed burns. She’s exactly right, and our congressional delegation should lead the charge in demanding all federal agencies managing land in New Mexico update procedures for approving and lighting burns. Part of the discussion has to be other methods of removing fuels from the forest, whether sustainable logging or targeted grazing.

In 2000, the devastating Cerro Grande Fire near Los Alamos began as prescribed burn, not by the Forest Service, but by the National Park Service. That fire, ignited May 4, 2000, and burned more than 43,000 acres and destroyed hundreds of homes.

Twenty-two years later, it’s déjà vu.

In mid-March, a prescribed burn for the Gallinas Watershed in the Santa Fe National Forest near Las Vegas, N.M., was delayed because of snow on the ground. On April 6, the burn, named Las Dispenas Prescribed Burn, went ahead, with disastrous consequences.

A report from the Las Vegas Optic on April 6 was matter-of-fact: “A prescribed burn in the Las Dispensas treatment area, in the Santa Fe National Forest north of Las Vegas turned into a wildfire Wednesday afternoon, the Optic has learned.” At that time, the fire was estimated at 100-plus acres.

The decisions that led to the go-ahead for the burn must be examined in detail. A red-flag warning — meaning ideal conditions for wildland fire ignition — was in effect for much of the region that day. Conditions at the burn launch, though, were predicted to be calmer, fire managers have said.

The exact language: “forecasted weather conditions were within parameters for the prescribed burn.”

The obvious question: Just what were those parameters? Because when unexpected, erratic winds kicked up in the afternoon, the fire went rogue. Once the winds blew and sparks dispersed, the Hermits Peak Fire was born. Which begs another question: Did the U.S. Forest Service have adequate crews on hand in case the fire got out of hand?


To that end, Lujan Grisham is insisting federal prescribed burn guidelines need reviewing. That process should begin as soon as possible. This debate is crucial to Santa Fe. We’re not burning — yet — but any of the prescribed burns planned for the watershed here could go wrong. The city has a definite interest in making fire choices less risky.

I’m not sure what models were used, but that reminded me of this earlier story from the Albuquerque Journal:

Modeling tools

Rod Linn, leader of Los Alamos National Laboratory’s atmospheric modeling and weapons phenomenology team, studies how fire interacts with the atmosphere.

“The buoyancy that comes from the heating of the fire feeds back on the wind field around the fire, and redirects it and changes the way it then heats the unburned fuel and spreads,” Linn said.

LANL worked with the Forest Service to develop the FIRETEC tool, which models the shape and growth of wildland fires and prescribed burns.

FIRETEC runs on supercomputers and is primarily used for researching past fire behavior.

A newer LANL modeling tool, QUIC-Fire, can run on a laptop and is more accessible for crews planning fires or predicting wildfire growth.

The tool helps agencies design ignition patterns and predict where smoke will flow.

The lab was not involved in helping plan the prescribed burn that turned into the Hermits Peak Fire.

And perhaps an even broader question, what causes people to trust models?  Would be interesting to do a survey of fire behavior analysts.  Which perhaps circles back to what makes people trust climate models? Are the factors the same for micro and macro models? And what about the role of institutions (Forest Service, IPCC)?