Tracking the News… The Chiminea Otra Vez


I referred to this “fire policy letter in 2012” in this recent post as a “tempest in a teapot” or “a wildfire in a chiminea.” Then Larry wondered about this question “does putting out fires early actually cost less than paying to watch them burn”?

Probably based on statements like this:

In May 2012, Forest Service Deputy Chief Jim Hubbard issued a “fight all fire” directive. This may be why the feds spent more than $1 billion fighting fires last year. They came in $400 million over budget.

Now, our understanding was that someone had told Mr. Hubbard to be careful with fire so that the FS didn’t go too far over budget. So if is correct, then efforts to reduce firefighting costs had exactly the opposite effect. However, another way to look at it is that the FS might have even more over budget without the policy. Do we have any evidence that would support one explanation over the other? Certainly watching fires for months and then suppressing larger fires than you started with would cost more than suppressing a smaller fire. But maybe many of the “watched” will go out on their own instead of blowing up. Seems like the experts might have some relevant data on this.

So what is the source of these news articles?

Well the first one I found was this on March 6:

BOISE, Idaho – For decades, the U.S. Forest Service let small fires in remote areas burn naturally in recognition that fire was part of the natural landscape – and that by letting some fires burn, future large fires could be prevented. Last year, however, every fire was battled unless granted special status.

That’s been recognized as part of the reason the Forest Service spent more than $1 billion fighting fires in 2012.

Now, the agency is taking the “fight all fires” directive off the books.

Jonathan Oppenheimer, senior conservation associate at the Idaho Conservation League, said plenty of science and economic sense are behind the decision.

“Putting out every single fire is not good for firefighter safety, it’s not good for the environment, and it’s not good for the bottom line and the taxpayers,” he said.

The forest official who required that all fires be suppressed in 2012 had a goal of keeping all fires small.

Oppenheimer said the history of letting some fires burn got its start in Idaho with a fire in the Selway-Bitterroot Wilderness being allowed to burn in 1972 – the first time the Forest Service had made such a decision. The Gem State is home to millions of acres of backcountry.

“We’ve got a huge 4 1/2 million, 5 million-acre wildland complex in central Idaho,” he said, “where it simply doesn’t make sense to be putting firefighters’ lives at risk to go and put out small fires.”

Forest Service Chief Tom Tidwell issued the decision on the policy shift for the upcoming fire season.

Who is the Public News Service?

“The Public News Service (PNS) provides reporting on a wide range of social, community, and environmental issues for mainstream and alternative media that amplifies progressive voices, is easy to use and has a proven track record of success. Supported by over 400 nonprofit organizations and other contributors, PNS provides high-quality news on public issues and current affairs.”

I wonder how you can provide high-quality (reasonably neutral) news and at the same time “amplify progressive voices.”

Friday, there was this story, which discusses the opinions of Timothy Ingallsbee, the Executive Director of FUSEE link here.

In this story, it says that:

In May 2012, Forest Service Deputy Chief Jim Hubbard issued a “fight all fire” directive.

But that’s not exactly what it said. If I had to wager a guess, I would have to wonder if there is something to the Hubbard=bad, Tidwell=good plotline that someone somewhere found worthy of promoting. Or as one journalist reader said “it’s just sloppy.”

So you might want to review what we said about this letter last year, when it came out here…on what I called, at the time, the “temporarily be careful about a let-burn” policy.

Although the Forest Service said the directive is temporary and will likely be suspended come winter, Manning’s article makes it seem like the decision is a complete reversal of the 1995 federal fire policy that made restoration of wildland fire a national priority. He argues that the conditions that led to the temporary change—hot, dry weather and budget shortfalls—aren’t likely to go away anytime soon, suggesting the fire suppression policy might stick around, too.

Stahl thinks so, too.

“Things like this have a tendency to become indelible,” he said. In order to reverse the policy next season, he thinks the Forest Service will have to make the case that budget and weather conditions are significantly different than this year—something he worries might not happen.


8 thoughts on “Tracking the News… The Chiminea Otra Vez”

  1. “BOISE, Idaho – For decades, the U.S. Forest Service let small fires in remote areas burn naturally in recognition that fire was part of the natural landscape – and that by letting some fires burn, future large fires could be prevented. Last year, however, every fire was battled unless granted special status.”

    That’s not exactly true….every fire was NOT “battled”. The direction was that every fire needed to be managed under a “suppression strategy” as a bad fire.

    One suppression strategy is “point protection” in which you simply monitor the fire and do nothing unless it threatens a “value at risk” (think pack-bridge, lookout, cabin, etc). If threatened, crews would put up pumps and hose or structure wrap to prevent the value from burning up if/when the fire got there. This is the EXACT same strategy used when managing fires to allow natural processes to happen – good fire.

    In fact, most wilderness fires were allowed to burn naturally last year under the new direction. They were simply managed as “point protection” fires as opposed to “managed for resource benefit” or whatever “fire-use” is these days. The end result on the ground is the same. The big difference is that the FS could not claim any target accomplishment for bad fires, whereas good fires you can. It’s a little more than semantics, it’s a culture thing that can easily become entrenched as Andy pointed out above.

    What’s sad is that the higher ups and public was duped into thinking every fire was being “battled” when many, many large fires never even had a person anywhere close. Believe it or not, it is very simple, safe and cost effective to monitor a fire (even a big one) from the office. A nightly/periodic infrared flight (cost shared among lots of fires) will accurately determine fire perimeters to allow for detemination of wheter or not a value is at-risk or not.

    This isn’t applicable everywhere as some folks here have argued before, however you need to appreciate the expansiveness of the Northern Rockies. This is how fires have been and will continue to be managed regardless of what it’s called.

    Since so much of our “restoration” work is rooted deeply in fire ecology, i think it’s important that the Agency get its act together with a consistent message in order to maintain credibility. Where appropriate, it’s OK to let some fires burn. Plus, the lessons that can be learned and applied from watching natural fire and its effects are innumerable.

    • JZ- I get how the public could be “duped” by reading incorrect news articles. It is less clear to me how the “higher-ups” could be “duped” as conceivably they could ask for, and get, the real story from people like you any time they wanted.

      Also, some of us have seen a different kind of management of backcountry fire-use fires, including fire crews walking in and positioned around them, horse and mule outfitters bringing them provisions, etc.

  2. another thought: that the “put it out” strategy was a White House directive designed to keep wildfire off the front pages during the presidential campaign; heroic firefighters battling blazes reads a lot better, too.

    char miller, director w.m. keck professor of environmental analysis environmental analysis program pomona college 185 e. sixth street claremont ca 91711 909-607-8343 [email protected] ________________________________

    • Yes, that also makes sense. But what I find odd is singling out a person for news attention who was at the (relative) bottom of the food chain, when we all know that the letter wasn’t issued independently of higher-ups. Maybe a FOIA on “any documents relating to the development of the policy letter” would shed some light. Maybe our friends on the blog with FOIA- ing experience could give advice (I only have experience with being FOIA-ed)?

  3. Sadly, no one talks about “point protection” for endangered species habitats. Yes, there will always be places where you could let fires burn, with monitoring. However, there are many types of “values at risk” that are left to be incinerated. As more lands get treated for fuels, more fires can be allowed to burn “for management objectives”. Again, I am not for a full ban but, I think we need site specific EIS documentation for any Let-Burn program.

    Why don’t those fire people want to talk about public safety? They are sometimes trading their own safety issues for public safety issues. Letting a fire burn in easy, untreated terrain squelches the firefighter safety issue.

    It is interesting that, since the FLAME Act has stopped the pilfering of other departments’ budgets, the fire suppression folks are “lobbying” for more money to “manage by wildfire”. Many firefighters feel very strongly about their abilities to masterfully control wildfires. However, when they let a fire burn for weeks in places where high winds happen spontaneously, fires easily breach firelines, reaching new fuels build-ups and concentrations.

    Additionally, they don’t want to talk about resources tied up for weeks, tending and “preserving” wildfires. This is especially important in July, August and September, when firestorms and lightning busts happen the most. I want a ban on Let-Burn fires in those months.

  4. Sharon…yes the higher ups could have asked anytime they wanted, but the emporer only wanted to be told his clothes were beautiful.

    I had the unfortunate opportunity to watch some of the higher ups answer very pointed public questions about last year’s policy. The answers were evasive, generally didn’t address the questions and usually regurgitated the same talking points that had been provided to them – We’re managing risk and “suppressing” all fires. I think Char is probably the closest to reality on why that was. I’ll stop on that point, lest I devolve even further.

    Interestingly enough, and as I predicted way back, along about early September or so, just before the end of the fiscal year, the direction suddenly changed!!! A letter was sent out that sadi from that day on, all fires could be managed for benefits and the targets claimed!!! Bad fire suddenly turned good overnight!!!! (and targets were met). Uh-oh…I’m devolving…..

    As far as crews in wilderness, outfitters packing in gear, etc, yes….that is all part of “managing” those fires. There are a lot of crews that specialize in management of long duration events in wilderness/remote areas. The used to be called fire-use modules (Now: wildland fire modules). Generally they are low maintenance, eyes and ears, structure wrapping, pump setter-uppers, weather monitors and such (“tending”, as Larry put it). The idea being that crews are in place when/if something needs protected and can relay critical info on fire behavior, etc. In the big scheme of things they are relatively cheap and don’t tie up IA resources since they’re mission is different. At least it was…

    Something to also consider is that management (good or bad) of many tens of thousands of acres of wilderness fire can be done for prety cheap….several dollars or so an acre. Conversely, a couple smokejumpers dispatched to put out a smoldering stump in a scree slope in the wilderness, followed by a helicopter or fixed wing flight out a remote airstrip they (skilled IA resources) spent a while hiking to can easily cost $10-20K.

    Larry, good points about the TES habitat. I would hate to see it protected from fire by policy or some programmatic decision though. That would make fire managers job even more difficult and the resultant decisions potentially even more bizarre. Which is why I questioned Matt’s quest to have whitebark pine listed as endangered. Also, Larry, as a learning opportunity you should ask to shadow someone in fire management when they are completing a WFDSS assessment….to address your site specific concerns.

  5. With the Forest Service, here in California, recently saying that it could cut 500 firefighter jobs, we cannot have anyone “tending” fires during the summer. The “Whatever Happens” style of forest management has failed us, leading to these conditions that foster record fire seasons. Blaming costs on things like active suppression, grazing and even forest residents ignores the “elephant in the room”, being unmanaged, overstocked and unhealthy forests.

    I’m guessing that fire suppression activities were cheaper when there was more active management in the woods. Indeed, logging contractors have wildfire responsibilities, and their resources are much closer to ignitions than the Forest Service. More fuelbreaks mean smaller wildfires. More loggers means more initial attack resources.


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