A couple of recent stories provide some information about how the Forest Service is “managing fire,” and might provide some insights into the opportunity for public involvement (or not).
The Lion Point Fire is burning on the Sierra National Forest in California. Here is an article that basically incorporates the language (which may be boilerplate) from the Forest Service on its Inciweb site. (As of today, it’s burned 9 acres.)
“This lightning caused fire started approximately two weeks ago. Forest managers are determining the feasibility to manage this fire for multiple resource and protection objectives. Desirable fire effects that are consistent with the forest plan and beneficial outcomes to the resource values at risk will be the main objectives for this incident.”
If you were the Incident Commander, and looked at the forest plan to see what it says about the desired outcomes and values at risk, you would find this in the 2004 Sierra Framework amendment ROD:
“Lightning-caused fires may be used to reduce fuel loads or to provide other resource benefits, such as conserving populations of fire-dependent species. Before wildland fires can be used, national forest managers must prepare a fire management plan that describes how prescribed fires and naturally caused wildland fires will achieve resource management objectives.”
My search for “fire management plan” did not match any documents on the Sierra website. Does anyone know if such a document exists, or what the managers of the Lion Point Fire are using?
The Sierra forest plan is currently being revised, and the 2016 draft revised plan would create four “strategic fire management zones” with different desired conditions and guidelines. (“Fire management plans” are not mentioned.)
Meanwhile, the revised forest plan for the Coconino National Forest in Arizona has just been released; it emphasizes forest health and thinning initiatives to reduce the risk of catastrophic wildfire. The latest “update” says “the revised management plan provides greater flexibility on the management of wildland fires and seeks to return the forest to its nature-based fire dependent ecosystem.” The Forest Supervisor says the new plan includes updated guidance in managing naturally occurring wildfires to burn dry forest fuels.
I found this ecosystem desired condition and these guidelines in the “fire management” section:”
2 Wildland fires burn within the historic fire regime of the vegetation communities affected. High-severity fires occur where this is part of the historical fire regime and do not burn at the landscape scale.
1 WUI areas should be a high priority for fuels reduction and maintenance to reduce the fire hazard.
2 Fire management activities should be designed to be consistent with maintaining or moving toward desired conditions for other resources.”
The Coconino forest plan describes the decision process for managing fires as follows:
“Site-specific analysis is conducted for prescribed fires and for any wildfire that extends beyond initial attack. For prescribed burns, the decision document is the signed National Environmental Policy Act (NEPA) decision. For wildfires, an analysis is performed using a tool like the Wildland Fire Decision Support System, and signed by the appropriate line officer.”
Which is not a “decision document” subject to NEPA. And this language does not appear to address how to make a decision whether there would be an “initial attack” in the first place.
My take-away? Forest plan desired conditions relevant to fires are even more important than for most projects if there is no later opportunity to influence a decision, so it is important for them to be specific and for them to vary in the forest plan based on the ecosystem and values at risk. (While I didn’t look for them here, there should also be forest plan standards or guidelines applicable to suppression activities.)