An example of the U.S. Forest Service fanning fear?

I couldn’t help but notice that 15 minutes ago the U.S. Forest Service’s official twitter handle posted this tweet:

Within less than five minutes, I was able to determine the simple facts that this dramatic image:

1) Is from 6 days ago (confirm for yourself here);
2) Is from an intentional Forest Service back-burn operation that firefighters started with drip torches 6 days ago (confirm here); and

3) The vast majority of this wildfire has burned grass, brush, sage, range and some agriculture land, not “forests.” (confirm here).

And check out the satellite image of the general wildfire area below.

Do any of these facts matter? Does the U.S. Forest Service have an obligation to share these types of facts?


13 thoughts on “An example of the U.S. Forest Service fanning fear?”

  1. Matthew, it is a photo of backburning, that’s pretty common because it’s easy to get to and relatively safe.
    The FS never said the fire was in a forest in the tweet and people may well be concerned about the fire. If it wasn’t worrisome to someone, I doubt that 440 people would have been assigned, especially when there’s a general shortage of personnel.

    • Sharon, Yes, the photo in the tweet is from a backburn operation. That’s why I clearly identified it as a photo of a backburn operation. As a former wildland firefighter myself (who’s married to a former USFS Wilderness ranger/wildland firefighter) I’m familiar with backburn operations. Thanks.

      The dramatic photo in the tweet may give a causal observer the impression that this is a forest fire, not mainly a grass/brush/range/sage fire. A causal observer would also have no idea that this was a fire intentionally lit by the USFS as part of a backburn operation. I’m sorry if all these points didn’t come across clear.

      • I recognize that you pointed it out. It just reminded me that I had recently read a piece for journalists about covering fires that mentioned a tendency to photograph back burns.. I couldn’t find the link to that piece when I went looking through my saved links.
        What difference does it make if it is a forest fire or not? The FS and others are still fighting it.

        As to catastrophizing forest fires, I think the FS is not doing as much as many others.

        • I agree, Sharon, that journalists covering wildfires have a tendency to photograph back burns. As we know, back burns are intentional set by firefighters using incendiary devices and the goal of a back burn is typically to burn all the vegetation. Therefore, using such photographs (while very dramatic) may not be indicative of how an entire wildfire burned/burns.

          Also, regarding “what difference does it make if it is a forest fire or not?”

          When some politicians simply add up all the total acres burned per year (including acres that burned grass, ag land, brush, etc) or point to a wildfire that didn’t even burn any trees or public lands, and use such wildfire to call for more logging of forests on public lands through the use of categorical exclusions….I think a case could be made that it does make a difference.

      • I think it is a really good idea that the USFS is informing the public that there is still risk from wildfires even though the westside fires have received precipitation and are wrapping up. Not sure why trying to inform folks that fire season is still going on and not to be carless is a bad idea. How many seasons did you work fire Matt and how many years ago was that?

        • I have zero issue whatsoever with the U.S. Forest Service, or anyone else, “trying to inform folks that fire season is still going on and not to be carless.” I don’t believe this tweet from the U.S. Forest Service does that, for the reasons I’ve already explained. Summer of 1995, Patrick. My wife the summers of 1992-1994. I’ve worked on, and studied/researched wildfire policy and wildfire issues for the past 25 years. The only reason I even mentioned that I fought wildland fires was in the context of making sure Sharon knew I was familiar with the basic concept of a backburn. Thanks.

          P.S. While yesterday’s scary, dramatic (6-day old backburn) tweet from the U.S. Forest Service said “a total of 440 personnel have contained this fire to 55%”….the number this morning according to inciweb is only 200 personnel and 90% containment, with an estimated full containment date of this Sunday at 12 am.

          • You are pretty condescending for someone who has only spent a few months on a Type 2 crew over 25 years ago. With no work experience, formal education, or publication record, I do not understand how you parade yourself as an authority on natural resource issues.

            • Thanks for your comment Patrick. If you want to debate or discuss these issues, please let me know. I do have 25 years of experience working on natural resources issues. If something I’ve posted here is flat-out wrong, please let me know and I’ll happily issue a correction. Otherwise, I could care less what you think about me. I will not stop sharing tons of information on this blog, which sometimes include sharing my personal views. Cheers!

  2. I remember when most of the folks in Forest Service “PR” positions had worked their way up from field positions. That is definitely not the case now. Many of them have never worked in the field and are “professional” PR people with “messaging” that they are trying to get across. It is very interesting how they interpret the forest and what happens there compared to those of us who have worked in the woods for a long time. It’s good to have folks who know how to communicate more clearly with the public than those of us who work in the woods, but I think that transparency is still important. The folks who put together that tweet probably had no idea that that was a backburn and what the difference was between a backburn and a wildfire. I think that that tweet could have been reworded to be more transparent yet still communicate the same message. “A backburn is used to help contain the Brattain Fire ….despite this progress, fire danger is still high.”

    • An excellent point that makes two. 1) It’s sometimes hard to tell what is intentional and what is just bureaucratic ineptitude (and when trust is an issue, the public may assume the worst). 2) Does the after-action review include a review of the PR work, so that they might use language more like what you suggested in the future?


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