Fire expert blasts Lassen officials for letting blaze grow

Contributed post from Bob Zybach:

Here is an article that appeared in yesterday’s Redding Record Searchlight and that has already drawn 70 comments on their website:

Excerpted from:


A former Shasta-Trinity National Forest supervisor and fire expert blasted the National Park Service on Thursday for allowing the Reading Fire to smolder for more than a week, feeding on overgrowth, before it exploded into an inferno that so far has decimated 42.5 square miles.

He said it could take a century to repair the damage the fire has wrought.

“I can’t believe they went ahead with letting a fire burn for the ecosystem’s benefit in a season that, for the entire nation, is record dry,” said Steve Fitch, a retired Shasta-Trinity National Forest supervisor, fire behavior expert and national firefighting teacher. “That fire is creating its own weather. It’s extreme temperatures there. … They probably nuked 10 percent or 15 percent (of the land).”

Fitch retired from the Forest Service in 1995 to work as an adviser on natural resources to the state Assembly until 2003.

His comments came as the blaze raged across 27,163 acres and grew another 4 acres overnight. The fire remains only 28 percent contained and 1,068 firefighters in the park braced for a weekend that could bring strong winds and thunderstorms. . .

. . . However, a host of other issues made the bad decision even worse, he said. The Forest Service’s aerial tanker fleet was at one-quarter strength this year.

“Everybody in fire management knew that,” he said. “That country up there, there’s no way to get into it. You’re relying on aerial firefighting resources.”

Then, there’s the Chips Fire, which has scorched almost 43,000 acres last Thursday and has run up $17.5 million in suppression costs.

“The killer for me: the Chips Fire took off on (July) 20. That should have shut this prescribed natural fire down immediately … it went to several thousand acres in the first 24 hours,” Fitch said. “That was just south of them. That’s going to draw on them. If anything went wrong, they knew they were going to have very limited resources to do anything with it.”

The Reading Fire didn’t take off until August — and it could get worse, owing to the weather. . .

. . . Even beyond containment, Fitch said the fire will blacken the park and forest’s legacy for decades.

The soil will be caked and unable to absorb moisture, leading to soil erosion, and the high temperatures also sterilized the dirt, meaning seeds won’t germinate in the charred land for many years, Fitchsaid.

Mostly brush will replace the vast towering pines that blanketed the park, he added.

The fire has sparked harsh criticism of the National Park Service policy that allows for control burns even in hot, dry weather.

Old Station residents, business owners and north state politicians all have weighed in over the controversial law, with some crying for reform to avoid a similar incident.

The park’s superintendent, Darlene Koontz, was out of the office all day in the field, her secretary said, and couldn’t be reached for comment.

Commentary: Here is a good example of what we have been discussing in this blog — situations where wildfires are allowed to burn in Wilderness areas (and often doing significant damage to wildlife and wildlife habitat in the process) until they escape and cause major damage to adjacent lands and communities, too.

Fitch’s references to “prescribed natural fire” and letting a fire burn for “ecosystem benefits” are a little chilling, though. Apparently Darlene Koontz made a “local decision” to let a wildfire burn within her jurisdiction and is now unavailable for comment. Wow. If history is any indicator, she will keep her job, no questions asked, and perhaps even be due for a promotion or a paid leave of absence due to stress in the coming weeks and months.

These types of decisions are clearly not based on science or common sense, yet there seems to be few consequences, if any, for the people who make them. Isn’t it time that resource managers and policy makers were made responsible for their actions? Especially when human lives and billions of dollars are involved?

13 thoughts on “Fire expert blasts Lassen officials for letting blaze grow”

  1. In retrospect, perhaps a national policy letter that says “let’s be careful out there this year” should have been broader than just the FS? It is curious the things that are interagency homogenized, and the things that aren’t. (yes, I am on vacation but couldn’t resist adding this after posting Bob’s post.)

  2. Ironically, this situation has happened before, in the very same place. I believe that it was in the early 80’s when a wildfire roared out of LVNP, into the Hat Creek RD of the Lassen NF. The political fallout from that wildfire was significant, and a new suppression policy was hammered out.

    When I was in Hat Creek, in ’86-’88, fires in the park were frequently manned. I even served on the Manzanita Lake engine, from time to time. I went on one fire in the park, and it was a single giant tree, hit by lightning, and cracked all the way through the first 100 feet. Since it was close to the boundary, it was decided to put the fire (which was up in the tree) out. They called in a professional faller, and he got the tree down. It took a matter of minutes to put a line around the whole tree, due to ash-laden soils. That fire, within the new burned area, probably didn’t need to be immediately put out.

    The Chips Fire has burned mostly in the previous Storrie Fire, until it emerged into more flammable, green, true fir stands. The terrain is extreme, in places. The fuels from the unsalvaged Storrie Fire are quite significant. We can thank Chad Hanson for squelching the fuels reduction salvage project I was working on. Currently, they are installing distant indirect firelines, and it looks like it will burn for many more days. Locals aren’t happy, at all.

    • Larry: Regarding your comment that “locals aren’t happy,” here is a 6-minute video-clip of Donna Koontz answering questions from local people about this fire and about NPS “let it burn” policies that was made 10 days ago when the fire was much smaller. Koontz has a Bachelors degree in forestry, has been on the job five years, and needs to be prompted from the audience regarding the name of lodgepole pine:

      • “Unforeseen wind event” is NOT an acceptable excuse for letting such a fire burn for soooo long.

        Add this one to Yosemite’s two screw-ups, a few years ago, and we have close to $50,000,000 that, somehow, doesn’t come out of the Park’s operating budgets. However, the public sure does pay for it. I have yet to hear any credible explanation of the so-called “benefits” of wildfires. Sure, there are SOME beneficial aspects, in SOME cases, at SOME intensities but, they surely do not outweigh the many, many destructive and damaging environmental impacts.

        I think the Park Service needs to re-evaluate their fire policies. Since they have fewer “tools” to acheive desired conditions, they see fire as a way to “manage” their parks into something they believe is best. That means using fire to kill trees, in many cases. AND, did you know that fuel moisture and air temperature only come into play when burning conditions are not good.

        That Yosemite “Meadow Fire” was lit during the peak heat times of late August, with ultra low humidities. Within an hour of ignition, the fire was lost. The area’s tourist trade, over the Labor Day weekend, was awful, with many road closures.

        Some Parks should not be allowed to “play with fire” during the hot summer months.

  3. I’d just like to point out that both the former National Forest supervisor, a self-described fire-expert, and the reporter for this article used the following terms when describing this and other fires:

    “Decimated” “nuked” “raged” “charred” “scorched.”

    I’m not sure how accurate or scientifically valid any of these words are. Perhaps this is just another case of another old-school, retired Forest Service employee pining for the days of yore when they used to be with the agency and everything was hunky dory…except for all the clearcuts, old-growth logging, roadbuilding into roadless country, loss of native fish, loss of native wildlife, etc.

    • Matt: “Decimated,” “charred,” and “scorched” are accurate terms, right out of a dictionary. The “self-described fire-expert” is also described by many others with the same terms; mostly because he is an actual “fire-expert” with a long career in that field.

      I’d say that “nuked” and “raged” might not be “scientifically valid,” all right, but why on earth would you expect them to be? It’s a newspaper article, not a scientific treatise. It’s a reporter! Most of the words in your post are probably not “scientifically valid” either, as one comparison.

      Finally, how many actual “cases” can you really cite regarding your description of retired USFS employees? My best guess is less than one.

    • Well, it has been almost TWENTY years since clearcuts were used in the Sierra Nevada. Same for the cutting of old growth and roadbuilding, Matt. Just a “reminder”. In fact, the losses of native fish and wildlife can be easily tied to catastrophic wildfires, these days.

  4. Bob: I highly doubt it’s anywhere near accurate to say that this fire “decimated” 42.5 square miles. I also doubt that the fire “nuked” 15% of the land as the former forest supervisor contends.

    Larry: If you look, this former forest supervisor retired in 1995, almost twenty years ago. My comment about all the clearcuts, old-growth logging, roadbuilding into roadless country, loss of native fish, wildlife, etc was directed at the time this forest supervisor was in the Forest Service, likely during the period of the late 60s to 1995. I contend my description was pretty accurate based on the simple fact that national forest management during that period was largely based on clearcuts, old-growth logging and roadbuilding in roadless lands. Thanks.

    • Matt: Your “pretty accurate” description of a “simple fact” is simply not true. Maybe you’re not old enough to remember all of the USFS campgrounds that families and berrypickers used to visit every summer and hunters and fishermen would use the rest of the year. Fire lookouts, reforestation projects, fire prevention programs, and recreational trails construction and maintenance were other management functions, in addition to educational programs and community outreach projects and products. What they called “multiple use” (made possible in large part by road construction).

      One example: in 1928 the Siuslaw National Forest had about 35,000 acres of old-growth (out of about 600,000 acres or so); in 1990 — following 45 years of extensive road building and logging — there were about 35,000 acres of old-growth in the Siuslaw. Today there is about 35,000 acres of old-growth in the Siuslaw. Other forests carried on major salvage programs in areas in which living trees had been decimated in wildfires and windstorms. And, in many places, sales of old-growth were also logged — in large part to house America’s growing post-Depression, post-war families and help to build our growing communities and industries.

      The roads built in the Siuslaw from 1940 until the mid-1950s were almost specifically for the purpose of national security during and following WW II. These roads were funded entirely by a series of clearcuts in second-growth timber (mostly dating to 1868; i.e., 70-90 years old), and later salvage from the 1962 Columbus Day storm. Not old-growth.

      Now, is there even a single instance where these combined activities resulted in the loss of native fish and/or wildlife, as you state? Which species, and how? I can’t think of any, and I’d like to see (1) your list and (2) any kind of documentation that might indicate these animals were decimated or extirpated due to USFS clearcutting and/or roadbuilding, as you state. I think this is mostly just another urban myth designed to get impressionable kids to righteously chain themselves to trees in an effort to stop logging on federal lands. It’s almost as if Weyerhaeuser, Publishers Paper, and Georgia-Pacific were paying these people to help eliminate a major competitor from the market.

    • Matt? If you can assume so much about an individual, I could very easily match such extreme assumptions and accusations, and then some, if I so chose to.

      Many foresters “pine” for the days of little obstruction but, don’t wish for more clearcutting and high-grading. I am sure that many still feel guilt for being a part of that “machine”. Unfortunately, it seems that one cannot deny there are still some old “dinosaurs” out there. Some of us, in this new millennium, just want a chance to earn trust, through education, collaboration, consensus, compromise and performance. The last clearcut I worked on was in 1989, and that was a hillside of bug-killed white fir. The last high-grading I did was in 1988. The “goalposts” need to become more fixed, more realistic, more flexible and more reachable.

  5. Bob, apparently I imagined that Forest Service management during the post-WWII period until the mid-90s was characterized by lots of clearcuts, old-growth logging, roadbuilding into roadless country and all out fire suppression, which resulted in degradation to native fish and wildlife species and the habitat they depend upon. Good to know that this was just a bad dream on my part. Thanks for cluing me into that.

    • Matthew: Your “dream” sounds like a nightmare. Your cause and effect scenario sounds more like a fictional paranoid delusion that a description of reality. Who, exactly, is doing the “grading” in your claims of “degradation,” and which species, exactly, were degraded by this process? And, bottom line (assuming you’ve been able to answer these questions), so what?

      The scientific management of our forest resources is replete with bad judgments, questionable actions, unethical behavior, and unintended consequences. Same as agriculture, music, law, education, blogging, and lawn maintenance. Part of being human; not a reason to begin wearing a hairshirt on behalf of us other sinners.

      Active management of USFS resources during and following WW II had major beneficial results for the American economy, American citizens, rural families, and numerous plant and animal species (mostly pets, lawns, and garden produce, but also trout, blacktailed deer, butterflies, wildflowers, and songbirds). A lot of work was poorly designed or completed due, in part, to reasons just stated — humans were involved. Most of the work provided needed jobs and products, housing, recreational opportunities, energy, food, and prime wildlife habitat, however, in addition to the failures.

      Fortunately, one nice thing about being human is that we learn from our mistakes and try to do better next time. Maybe the American public is learning that wildfires should be contained before they do further damage, that forests should not be managed by legal actions, and that local knowledge is critical in making local decisions. One can hope. Or gnash their teeth and cry out.


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