The Return of Let-Burn


Sadly, we get the same results as we’ve gotten in the past. When you “preserve” wildfires for weeks, the winds eventually come up and fires can (and will) escape. Now, all sorts of scarce resources will be tied up for an unknown amount of time, impacting other current and future wildfires, during an intense heatwave. How many Forest Service recreation opportunities will be closed up, due to wildfire concerns? How long will these wildfires continue to impact humans living close by? How many tens of millions of dollars will be wasted on these “resource benefits” touted by fans of “free range” wildfire? How many fuels reduction projects will have to be delayed, because fire suppression has “stolen” their funds? These questions need answers but, no one wants to answer them. “Unforeseen weather conditions” is an unacceptable answer for losing containment. Mountains and winds always go together!

From the Evergreen Magazine’s Facebook page:

The South Fork Fire: A firefighters perspective…
This was sent to us by a firefighter friend of ours. Lack of management in the forest is costing hundreds of thousands of dollars, taking lives and homes, decimating the land, wasting timber, and natural resources as well as dumping large amounts of CO2 and carcinogens into the atmosphere.

“The following message was forwarded by one of my Smokejumper Bro’s. For many years he was a lead plane pilot and has seen a lot from the air.

The temperature at 7500 ft in Los Alamos today reached 94 deg F. The winds were light however we can no longer see Santa Fe and the Sangre de Cristo Mountains because of the smoke from the Jarosa fire. Unfortunately this will drive the fire further into the Pecos Wilderness and no suppression will take place until ti crosses the wilderness boundary.

The Silver Fire is now listed at 85,000 acres with 10% containment according to the news reports.”

Subject: Feds, Fires, Frustration — CO (Lengthy)

“With the understanding that I’ve been wrong before, that I don’t have access to a lot of information and that I might be wrong again, here’s my opinion:
1. Background
The forest is in bad shape due to drought and the beetle infestation. There’s a LOT of standing dead timber and associated brush. In short, it’s a disaster waiting for the proper time to happen and it needs to be carefully watched by people with serious understanding of the potential problems. The right people weren’t in position and the supervision never took place.
2. What happened
A frontal system brought thunderstorms through the area about 5/6 June with a little rain and a lot of lightning. At least 3 fires started from lightning strikes in this area. The Forest Service (hereinafter ‘Feds’) knew these fires were active and, thinking that they could burn out the dead timber and not have to worry about it later, let them grow for 10-12 days without intervention — until they blew up, completely out of control. Then they began trying to play catch-up…in small and ineffective advances.
3. Why?
Apparently, the Feds, hand in hand with the Greenies — who seem to believe that Walt Disney was a wildlife biologist and get their expertise about the outdoors by watching reruns of Bambi — are/have been firmly of the opinion that no one should harvest any of this standing dead wood…because that wouldn’t be ‘natural’. (The beetle-killed timber actually is useful for paneling, furniture and a number of other purposes but the Greenies are terrified that anyone going in to get it will make those terrible trails and roads into the forest that ruin its ‘wildness’.) So, a time-bomb was allowed to develop. And it finally detonated.
4. Result
75,000+ acres of wilderness are reduced to burned wasteland (and a lot more will go up in flames in the coming days), the communities of South Fork, Masonic Park, Creede and others have been put at extreme risk and the entire National Forest in this region may have to be closed to public use for the rest of this year… or at least until the snow flies and kills the hot spots. (South Fork would have been lost had not a MUCH higher power — Thank You, God! — apparently stepped in and redirected the winds. The fire was headed directly toward town when the winds changed abruptly and drove the fires past it. Other locales may or may not be as fortunate.
IMO this debacle could have been avoided if the Feds had spent more time recognizing reality instead of fantasizing about ‘Nature’s intentions’.
A lone guy in a Super Cub could probably have overflown these fires early in their development, poured half a thermos of coffee out the pilot’s window and flown home with the problem solved.
Instead, the bureaucrats sat on their thumbs and let everything get out of control.
(A friend of mine has a saying: “Kill the monsters while they’re small.” The Feds don’t seem to subscribe to that thinking. )
Right now, the Feds are in full CYA mode, claiming that this fire is very ‘complex’, that it was impossible to forecast this sort of development and that the weather was a factor that was unforeseeable.
Well, it wasn’t nearly so complex before they allowed it to grow beyond control. If they’d actually gotten out of the office and walked through the woods from time to time, they would have seen the huge amounts of dead wood and brush that’s fueling it. And, if they knew how to read weather charts — or had asked someone from the weather service (another federal agency) to read the charts for them — they wouldn’t have been so surprised by that little shocker.
I understand that hindsight is always 20/20 but the locals were already asking why the Feds were sitting on this a week or more before it blew up. Seems to me that our expert forestry folks might have at least listened a little bit.
So, a lot of people are out of their homes. Some may lose them. The local law enforcement and fire organizations (who have been doing truly heroic work) are spread thin and overtaxed. And a lot of businesses are in dire financial straits just at the start of the summer season. And it can all be laid at the feet of the Feds, most of whom will probably be promoted for their ‘selfless’ efforts in fighting this disaster…that they created.

I guess that incompetence flows from the leadership. Lord knows we’re dealing with really entrenched (politicians) at every level of Federal gubmint.”

15 thoughts on “The Return of Let-Burn”

  1. Larry, are the last few paragraphs really about the West Fork Fire in Colorado? The Los Alamos part seems a bit confusing…

    • I think after the “So…” he is talking about continued misuse of wildfire preservation, in general. Yes, it is a rambling post, and I think he is mainly talking about the West Fork and Silver Fires, with a mention of the Jarosa Fire, too.

  2. The soil. Most of the time little attention is paid to the damage that can be done to the soil from an intense fire. There are still areas in the 1910 Idaho burns and the Yellowstone fires where the basic soil structure was ruined and has not recovered. David Montgomery’s book,”Dirt” discusses the importance of soils, the long term healing usually needed for soils that have been severly damaged, sometimes centuries, and urges people to recognize “dirt” is the basic staff of life for all of us.

    Fire can be a useful and often critical tool in caring for the land, but only when the use of fire recognizes the heat limits for protecting the basic building block for plants, and us, soil. Fire’s of the intensity we are experiencing these days are not the kind needed to care for the land that has to support some 300 million people.

  3. I was in an interesting conversation yesterday involving a person who felt that the FS was in a mode of “let’s watch” based on greenie philosophy (kind of like the above person) and a Forest Service person who said that lots of times that’s all they could do because of a lack of availability of people and objects (planes, cats, etc.).

    This individual also said that in his region there is zoning for where you do more and do less in terms of suppression. But it wasn’t clear to me if those are the same kinds of zones that “fire use” NEPA decisions use for “fire use”, or are separate suppression zones. (note: I put it in quotes not because I am questioning fire use, but the sentence looked confusing without the ability to put “fire use” as a single concept).

    I wonder whether different region’s/units approaches might make it difficult to explain to the public why some tactics were used in some places than others.

    Also it seems possible that you would have habitat of endangered species in the fire area, and while you would mitigate any fuels projects to care for the species, if you don’t have the bucks/people/objects to keep the fire where you can guide it away from these areas, you can’t actually protect their habitat from becoming crispified. So sometimes it seems like different programs may not be aligned. I wonder what others have observed around this?.

    • My main problem with letting fires burn is that the decisions to fully suppress fires is sometimes too late. They seem to put WAY too much focus on good burning conditions, rather than predicting dangerous fire weather. It is a no-brainer that fuels plus heat plus winds make for “excellent” burning conditions and probable escapes. I think in this case, there was little containment to begin with. They were “rolling the dice”, hoping the fire would stay contained to “natural” features like ridges and streams. These fires started in early June, and it appears they have “crapped out” in their multi-million dollar gamble.

      How big and expensive will these fires get? As per Inciweb, conditions are “extreme” and fuels are plentiful. This is all part of the “whatever happens” strategy.

  4. I asked around for some info and here is the story I got..

    “First, my understanding is the West Fork Fire firefighters were trying to suppress the fire when it went on its first big run. Second, we usually pause to plan before going into full suppression mode on wildland fires – especially those in dense timber in steep country. We have lost too many lives over the years when firefighters were in bad spots in an effort to fight fire aggressively. Speaking just for myself here – one firefighter’s life is worth more than any mountain of beetle-killed timber. ”

    It almost sounds as if maybe there should be predetermined breaks around these large areas of dead trees.

  5. Based on some of the comments that I have read here and previously, I can’t help but wonder how many of you have spent any significant time on a fireline, on a large, uncontrolled wildfire in steep, mountainous timberlands of the northwest.

    People, there are times when no firelines, or pre-placed firebreaks (as per southern Calif) or retardant planes or a thousand firefighters can stop a run in extreme weather conditions. And I doubt that thinning would stop one of these express trains of fire either. Sorry Larry.

    I have learned to review some of these topics and abstain from commenting when it covers areas of my ignorance or lack of experience. So I just read and “listen” and usually learn. Maybe it is just old age, and I am getting tired!

    • I have certainly done my share of firefighting, as evidenced by the picture I took. Please be reminded, Ed, that these big fires have been burning since June 5-6, as let-burn fires. The two biggest fires have already cost 10 million each, with ZERO containment, at this point. The West Fork fire appears to have DOZENS of spot fires (look at the Inciweb map), some of them MILES away from the firelines. The New Mexico fires seem to be “off to the races”, burning in steep Wilderness. They also started in early June. All fires start small, and it is well known that those areas are, indeed, “tinderboxes”, with extreme potentials. I am VERY sure that it is MUCH safer to aggressively attack small fires during cooler weather, rather than backing off and letting them get HUGE during a heat wave! I predict 200,000+ acres for the Colorado fire complex. They had their chances to jump in there and put them out but, they gambled instead, and lost. OOPS!

      Certainly, there can be no thinning in Wilderness areas, so that isn’t an option. Steep ground cannot be economically thinned so, that isn’t an option, either. Prescribed fire is expensive and difficult, with high probabilities of escape (with public liabilities for public damages). It is an option that might have the best chances for success, though. Let-burn fires gone bad seems to be the worst option, and we won’t see all of the impacts until later, including delayed responses on future wildfires, due to a lack of resources, already dedicated to these let-burn fires.

      Remember, it is still June, and we have MONTHS of fire season left to go. Now is not the time to gamble with wildfires!

  6. I am not proposing any type of action or non-action in respect to wildfires. My point is that the very broad, generalized comments and suggestions on how to deal with wildfire seem to overlook the fact that each fire, its locale, the fuels, the terrain, the weather, the additional dilemma of structure protection (not to mention human life) make each case unique.
    What works in New Mexico might be totally wrong for the Kootenai NF. Needs in forestland sprinkled with trophy homes are vastly different than forests miles from any roads or development.
    Many comments here attempt to lump all our fire problems into one square box, with a few “simple” prescriptions for resolution. Life or love or firefighting is never simple.

  7. As a bit of an aside,the WEst Fork fire in Colorado…which is the one threatening the town of South Fork, is about to burn through two of the biggest timber sales the Rio Grande Nf has ever put out. One was for 50 million board feet. They both were gonna salvage log some of the beetle killed spruce. I would imagine the re-opened mills were looking forward to the timber. Another case of burned before cut…but at least these sales weren’t litigated.

  8. One thing not discussed here yet is the question of whether local residents wanted their local Wilderness to be allowed to burn. Certainly, there should have been some consultation and information at a local meeting before the decision was made to allow possible future fires to burn. This leads to other questions. Would YOU be OK with allowing your favorite Wilderness (or other “protected” area) to burn? Has there been public meetings in your areas about allowing fires to burn in your local areas? If there has been, and you weren’t around, do you want to re-visit that decision, based on current conditions and weather? Are you OK with allowing potentially unqualified people to make these decisions, as the situation arises?

    Questions, questions, questions!

    • Larry, I believe Congress and the President answered those questions in 1964.

      “Decisions” to allow wilderness fires to burn are by Line Officers: District Rangers, Forest Sups, Regional Foresters, depending on seasonal severity. All diversity jokes aside, I think they’re qualified to follow direction in law, reg and policy.

      I suspect if you had a public meeting asking locals if they wanted fires to be allowed to burn in nearby wilderness (and roadless) areas, you’d hear a resounding “NO… of no-use, log it or it burns” type of response. But until we can get rid of those pesky “protections” (I’m all for it) I doubt that will be happening anytime soon.

  9. If we want to have green forests we need concentrate on putting out the wildfires as soon as possible, before they explode. I know this isn’t always possible, but too often the fires are allowed to burn for weeks before fire surpression stars, usually in the form of the back burns. Seems to me we could save billions of dollars and billions of old growth trees by being more aggressive in putting the fires out. This idea that fires are healthy for the forests might be true if you like a forests of dead trees and rocks. I have been working on harvesting brunt timber since the Biscuit fire,(usually less than 2% of the dead trees are harvested,if any)and found that our old growth forests are being destroyed at an alarming rate. I can not understand how we can destroy the social health and the economies of the rural northwest to save the old growth and then turn right around and let fire kill millions of old growth trees evey summer. Some people say wildfire is natural, (though our FS inhanced fires are hardly natural), but then so is cancer. I am all for saving our old growth forests but it is so discouraging to watch them being burnt up every summer. Espeically when all that money and resouce could be used to keep our forests and commmunties alive and healthy.

  10. On the bright side…the news stories are “constantly” refferring to the fire being “fueled by beetle killed timber.” Of course that’s from the local media (ie. Denver Post ect.), the AP will call it global warming. As an aside, the fire perimeter has enclosed around one of the timber sales. This area has lots of past spruce regen clearcuts. So I getta chance to see how “high elevation” (10,000feet) regen spruce clearcuts fair. I’m guessing not to well with spruce/fir…but one of my “clearcuts don’t burn” photo sites was surprisingly spruce/fir. Just thinking aloud…gotta go…Star Trek is coming on!

  11. an interesting and challenging issue, but you lose me when you blame the “greenies”. Logging or much fuels management in Wilderness is usually not an option. a light understory burn does a lot of good things, but it’s rare that a management area, conditions, or local politics allow it to happen. My forest has a backlog of thousands of acres of prescribed burning. So it doesn’t happen, the suppression continues and the fuels continue to increase. Solutions are needed, and one size certainly doesn’t fit all, but blaming the “greenies” or other limitations on the reckless logging and other management of old certainly doesn’t get us there.


Leave a Comment