The Shifting Winds of Fire Policy

This fire policy stuff is more confusing than a person might think. Here’s a new story from the Standard Journal about letting fires burn to save money. But I thought last year, the reason the fire policy came out about being careful to not let fires big and out of control, was also to save money. It seems to me that both can’t be true?

I guess folks need to be able to predict which ones will do fine if watched and which ones might get out of control. Certainly we have read about the latter. I wonder if the Lessons Learned Center or others are compiling information on how well we are doing at predicting.. if our predictions were not so hot (sorry) then letting fires get out of control might not actually be saving money. Plus it might have a domino-like effect from people and material being sent to the large fires, and more other fires are necessarily managed less intensively, necessarily risking that they too will become larger and suddenly take off due to unforeseen events.

Below is an excerpt.

Forest rangers told Madison County Commissioners that the fire suppression policy in the Caribou-Targhee National Forest has changed to a more limited response, even with a big fire season predicted for this summer.

Tracy Hollingshead, Palisades District Ranger for the Forest Service based in Idaho Falls, along with Jay Pence, the district ranger based in Driggs, along with Spencer Johnson of the Eastern Idaho Interagency Fire Center in Swan Valley, introduced a new map of immediate fire suppression areas. These small areas, marked in red on the map, are the only areas the Forest Service will respond immediately to in the event of a fire, which is a change from previous policy.

“Last year we had direction to put every fire out,” Hollingshead said on Monday.

The change came down to funding, they told the county commissioners.

“We definitely have a limited amount to spend,” Hllingshead said.

Red areas in Madison County include small portions of the Big Hole Mountains on the southern border of the county.

If a fire flares up in other areas, it will be dealt with on a conditional basis. Fire agencies will battle forest fires aggressively if the fire nears structures or population, even if it isn’t in a red-marked area on the map. But if the fire doesn’t threaten anything immediately, the fire will be allowed to burn out based on certain conditions.

“Other areas we’ll let burn depending on the time of year, weather and fuel conditions,” Hollingshead said.

Now it seemed like Andy (Stahl) was quoted last year as saying… Here.

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.

Here are a couple of other links to our discussions last year..

17 thoughts on “The Shifting Winds of Fire Policy”

  1. If even one wildfire out of 30 Let-Burn fires becomes huge, burning up 40 million dollars, has the Agency “saved” any money, at all?? If I were a western Governor, I would demand an aggressive fire policy, and send the Feds bills for their escaped Let-Burn fires, just like the Utah Governor did a few years ago. I guess Colorado hasn’t suffered enough in the last 18 months, eh? It is well known that our forests have plenty of dead trees and fuels. It is also well known that drought conditions exist, too. It is also well known that large wildfires cause more human impacts, including deaths, than small wildfires. It seems that Forest Service fire folks consistently underestimate fire risks and conditions.

    “Unforeseen weather conditions” continue to be a VERY poor excuse for allowing fires to get HUGE!

    • Larry.. I said “unforeseen weather conditions”, honestly I don’t know why watched fires escape. That’s why a Lessons Learned report on the topic would be helpful. Otherwise, without a clear link between what went wrong before and the current policy, we have no idea what the logic path currently is.

      It seems ironic to me that currently we need “the best science” and a hundred page EA for a 30 acre fuel treatment project, yet the broad policy about how to fight fires does not have an environmental document and affects people and acres in a substantially greater way.

      We have to describe how the fuel treatment might affect lynx in detail, but we don’t talk about an EIS for fire policy that affects many more endangered species to a greater extent.
      I wonder if someone will litigate saying that this is this (or any) broad fire policy decision should require environmental analysis?

      • When “maximum management areas” (Let-Burn zones) can be up to 100,000 acres, it would be quite cumbersome to do formal NEPA for all of those MMA’s across the west. Imagine having to survey for all of the endangered species within those areas. For goshawks, that would mean doing call points on a 300’x300′ grid, across landscapes that could have nests in them. The fire folks fear this sort of “analysis paralysis”. They feel that their own style of “analysis” should be quite adequate for the job, and site-specific formal NEPA is not needed.

        Additionally, I doubt that there was any “containment” on these Wilderness fires, to begin with. I think they were just “winging it”, hoping they could contain it when things started going bad. Fire cost update says the West Fork fire is now up to 15.9 million, up from 14.0 million, overnight. The Silver Fire has added another 1.8 million since Friday.

  2. There has been a continuing debate in the Forest Service about when/where is the time to do NEPA (and ESA) for fire management activities. The choices have ranged from national policies, to forest plans, to separate fire management plans, to individual fires, to after a fire. In practice, it seems like the answer tends to be none of the above, which I don’t believe is legally defensible. There is nothing in NEPA/ESA that exempts fire management, and there have been successful legal challenges to forest-level fire plans and to use of fire retardant nationally.

    In my opinion, what the agency is describing in the Madison County example is a forest plan decision. There are two kinds of areas on this Forest with respect to fire suppression policy: areas where aggressive suppression will always be sought, and areas where that request will depend on conditions. I think the important distinction is between places where management will strive to attain a natural fire regime, and places where that is not practical because of human developments. These priorities should not change with the budget (though how they are achieved might be). The public could then weigh in on decisions about where to put the red areas as part of the forest planning process.

    Since managing for fire-adapted ecosystems is expected to be a key element of plans developed under the new planning rule, fire suppression policies for a forest should be part of that decision-making process.

    • One could easily use that same mindset to justify timber projects that seek to “attain a natural fire regime”. One could also say that current conditions and forest compositions cannot guarantee that a wildfire will burn “naturally”. Overstocking and fuels buildups cannot be at “natural” levels with impacts like climate change, fire suppression and bark beetles in the mix, all together at once. So, does this mean we can selectively-ignore the Clean Air and Clean Water Acts, as well as the ESA, in favor of a “whatever happens” strategy? Indeed, some litigators prefer this scenario over proactive, site-specific science-based solutions that follow NEPA.

      Also, thank you for your educated opinion, Jon.

    • Jon, I agree with Larry that there is no such thing as a “natural fire regime”. We could pick a time and try to have the same fire regime as those days, but that is unnatural to just pick a time you prefer (or natural, if you think humans are part of nature). Through our policies of doing, and not-doing, combined with our not-knowing quite a bit, we in effect are picking what we want the land to look like and how fire will run through it.

      I think we should just admit this and start talking about what we want in the future and why, without the “natural fire regime” distraction.

      • Not the best choice of words (to get sidetracked by the question of what is ‘natural’) – but the point is that there is a fundamentally different management philosophy and approach for places where we are planning to use fire as a management tool versus planning to put them all out. And that’s worthy of a planning process. (So I agree with your last sentence, Sharon.)

  3. I agree with both Larry and Sharon regarding “natural fire regimes.” I think they are an imaginary construct that is easy to model, but are not actually found in nature. For that reason, among many others, models or fire management plans that are based on such artificial constructs will fail. There is just no way to stabilize a stool by using imaginary legs — same with plans and models. Such constructions can’t work, haven’t worked, and will likely never work; so better to rebuild with a more solid basis of facts, stated assumptions, a functional diversity of scientific disciplines, and actual experience.

    Also, I’d like to point out that every ecosystem that contains human beings is also, by definition, “fire adapted.” It really is time we stopped playing around with “new science” terminology and failed computer models and began making actual management plans for our common resources. The past 30 years gives us several directions and manufactured terms (including their acronyms) to avoid as we — hopefully — change focus into a more positive direction.

  4. Another wildfire cost update!

    West Fork complex: Now at 17.5 million dollars, an increase of 1.6 million dollars, overnight.
    Silver Fire: Now at 13.3 million, an increase of $400,000, overnight.

    West Fork Complex, (three fires), San Juan NF. NIMO (Houseman), IMT 1 (Blume) and IMT 2 (Nunez). Fifteen miles north of Pagosa Springs, CO. Timber. Active fire behavior with torching. Communities of South Fork and Wagon Wheel Gap, power lines, ski area and communications sites threatened. Evacuations and area closures in effect.

    This make me wonder where the deciding line is, on going from Let-Burn to full suppression, under favorable conditions. Is there a polygon on a map that decides when full suppression occurs, in a perfect scenario? In a 60,000 acre MMA, is there any thought on how to begin containing such a big wildfire, with available, or unavailable resources?!? Or, will the fire be allowed to grow beyond the MMA, if conditions are favorable? What if the fire is burning in a non-MMA? So many difficult questions, eh?

    I tend to think those 42 handcrews, 97 engines and 27 helicopters could surely be used in other places, about now!

    • Wildfire cost update:

      West Fork Complex: Up to $19.4 million, an increase of $1.9 million overnight
      Silver Fire: Now at $13.8 million, jumping $500,000 overnight

      Both fires continue to use resources which could be used elsewhere. I’m very sure that current resources could have snuffed these fires out, when they were small. Where are the “benefits” of these fires?!? How much carbon and toxic gases have been released? The media is solely focused on the Yarnell Hill Fire, calling it “massive”. The Silver Fire is 15 times bigger, and the West Fork Fire is 12 times bigger. Does anyone else having a feeling that this Let-Burn policy is going horribly wrong?!?!? Are the powers that be fully committed to burning up a billion dollars, this summer??

      • Wildfire Cost Update:

        West Fork Complex: Up to $20.9 million, an increase of $1.5 million.
        Silver Fire: Up to $14.2 million, an increase of $400,000

        But, hey, the Silver Fire has 63% containment now, with an estimated July 21 containment date. They still have 500 personnel working the fire, still at risk on a fire that should have been cold by now.

        The West Fork doesn’t have ANY sign of containment, still with active fire behavior. They have 1,234 personnel at risk, who could be useful elsewhere. Of course, there is no estimated containment date, almost a month since ignition! Meanwhile, local residents continue to suffer with closures, choking smoke and evacuations. “Natural and beneficial”, my @ss!! 100,000 acres, with no end in sight!

        WHERE is the media on THIS!!??!

  5. Wildfire Cost Update:

    West Fork Complex: Costs have risen to $22.4 million, an increase of $1.5 million overnight. Acreage continues to grow, and Let-Burn policy continues to be used on portions of the fires, due to safety issues. They now say that the fires are 20% contained but, the fire added another 10,000 acres. This situation is like a Pandora’s Box. They opened it and now they cannot put it back in. I have to question the original decision to let it burn. They KNEW the potential was extreme, and they should have used everything in their power to contain it when it was small. WHERE ARE THE “RESOURCE BENEFITS”???? How long will suppression resources be needed?? Will this fire burn throughout the summer?? How long will evacuations continue??? What will be total costs??? WHERE is the media reporting!!!!

    Silver Fire: While there are still over 200 people working the fire and only 59% is contained, the costs appear to not have been updated. They did get 0.84″ of rain/hail. Still, Inciweb says the growth potential and terrain difficulty at “extreme”. We’ll see if this fire will flare up again, now that resources are leaving. Will they go with a Let-Burn strategy again?

    This is all a part of the “whatever happens” strategy. Yep, it’s a “happening”, alright!!!

  6. Wildfire cost update:

    West Fork Complex: Costs are now up to $24.1 million, an increase of $1.7 million overnight. They no longer have any containment percent they want to offer. I really think that we need to have an investigation on this fire to present the real truths on this disaster. They are only reporting what they want us to see.

    From the Inciweb entry; “Utilize resource advisors to assist with minimizing suppression impacts to cultural, historical, and natural resources.”. Kind of late in the game, don’t you think? Let’s have a comprehensive list of those features that are ALREADY impacted, eh???

    Another entry; “Reinforce protection of structures from advancing fire by removing burnable vegetation and/or preparing structures for defense.” Yep, gotta keep those crews busy, doing stuff the public should have already done, just like in the Blacks Fire.

    Growth potential: Extreme
    Terrain difficulty: Extreme

    Yep, did that change since the date of ignition?!?!?!

    Silver Fire: They haven’t updated the costs in many days, now, despite still having almost 300 people working the fire. They claim 78% containment but, the sheer acreage and the extreme terrain makes me think they are including “natural barriers” in their totals. Natural barriers are often unreliable and flare-ups can easily blow by such barriers. Their reported costs are still at $14.2 million. I will continue to monitor this fire, to see when they update the fire costs. We’ll see how long the fuel moisture will hold. It seems unlikely that 292 people can patrol the firelines of a 130,000 acre fire.

    Growth potential: Extreme
    Terrain difficulty: Extreme

  7. Wildfire Costs Update:

    West Fork Complex: I missed a day but the fire continues to burn up bundles of money. Costs have shot up to $28.9 million, even when fire conditions have moderated and the fire has stalled a bit. They continue to not offer any containment percentage, or estimated date of containment. They sure seem to want to keep this fire out of the media. If it flares up and goes extreme again, will 800 firefighters hold it? That scenario would certainly affect the public’s trust in Forest Service firefighting skills.

    Silver Fire: This one is just about done but, they haven’t updated the dollar figures. So much for “transparency”!

  8. Wildfire Costs Update:

    West Fork Complex: Due to a reduction in costs reporting, I have to wonder why there was a drop of $2 million dollars. I guess it could be a typo but, there should never be a drop in these costs. I do think there needs to be an outside investigation about this whole incident. The public deserves to know everything about this fire, seeing that this is a template for future escaped Let-Burn fires, this summer. There NEEDS to be transparent accountability!

    Silver Fire: Fire costs continue to be not updated, on several other fires, as well. More lack of transparency!

  9. Wildfire Costs Update:

    From yesterday’s “adjusted” costs, the fire has added another $1.1 million, overnight. As long as this fire remains uncontained, the danger persists. Extreme weather is a constant in these higher elevations, and the fuels, both live and dead, remain in place. Long-range spotting remains a definite possibility, and again, there is no containment percent or estimated date of containment. And, yes, evacuations and closures remain in place.

  10. Fire costs for the West Fork Complex have passed the $30,000,000 mark. Currently, the fire has only 50% containment, and that doesn’t inspire much confidence, considering the extreme terrain and fuels-loading. They are continuing to de-mobilize resources. We’ll see if the fire flares up, as the summer continues forward.

    Will we have another similar incident during the summer? I tend to think so, as the media has offered very little coverage of this costly and regrettable mistake. The stakes will rise as resources become scarce, with more fires needing more help.


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