In one of my jobs with the Forest Service, I had the FOIA people working on my staff. Through these folks, I gained some understanding, and experienced a some small amount of what it is to work in FOIA. It’s a strange job in that you have a widely varying workload (with no upper bound) and required deadlines, but only so many knowledgeable people available to work. And it tends not to be glamorous or highly valued, with sometimes disrespectful folks in the public to work with. So here’s a shout out to them!
This story from Wildfire Today also reminded me of the gap between “doing” jobs (in this case, time was a factor) and “critiquing” jobs (at anyone’s leisure). We need to introduce more fire into the landscape; but if people in hindsight are seen (in a courtroom) to have made “mistakes” in doing it.. well then. People are less willing to take chances, and so the idea of restoring fire to the landscape possibly becomes impossible.
A county in Oregon has filed a lawsuit against the U.S. Forest Service that is related to the Beachie Creek Fire that burned over 193,000 acres east of Salem, Oregon in September.
The Davis Wright Tremain law firm in Portland submitted a request September 28 on behalf of Linn county, requesting records related to the fire. The request cited the Freedom of Information Act (FOIA) which requires a federal agency to respond within 20 business days, unless there are “unusual circumstances,” or notify the party of at least the agency’s determination of which of the requested records it will release, which it will withhold.
About 12 percent of the Fire was in Linn County, with the rest in Marion and Clackamas Counties. The Linn-Marion county line is near Highway 22 close to the communities of Lyons, Mill City, Gates, Detroit, and Idanha where many structures were destroyed.
The Forest Service replied to the FOIA in a letter dated the next day, saying (and this is an exact quote):
“Please be advised your request is not perfected at this time and we will be reaching out to you to discuss clarification once it has been to thoroughly review.”
After not receiving the documents or apparently hearing nothing further from the Forest Service, the attorneys for Linn County filed a lawsuit November 2, 2020 in the U.S. District Court in Eugene, Oregon.
Here’s (some of) what the FOIA asked for:
The information Linn County requested from the Forest Service was about the agency’s policy for managing fires, and the Beachie Creek Fire in particular. Some examples:
Contracts and documents relating to arrangements made with outside contractors for firefighting equipment and training in the Pacific Northwest;
Maps and records depicting all former “owl circles” and all locations of other endangered species habitat in the 2 years immediately preceding the Beachie Creek Fire;
Records declaring the Beachie Creek Fire a Prescribed natural Fire, a Management Ignited Fire or a Wildfire, and all records discussing or relating to that declaration;
Records illustrating the Suppression Response for the Beachie Creek Fire;
Records illustrating the Control Strategy for the Beachie Creek Fire;
Records relating to inputs to and outputs derived from the FLAME computer program or any other predictive computer analysis for the Beachie Creek fire for the period commencing on August 1, 2020, through the date records responsive to this request are provided;
All Social media posts discussing or describing the Beachie Creek Fire;
All current Forest Service Manuals in effect immediately preceding the Beachie Creek Fire and effective throughout the Fire Event.
Here’s Bill Gabbert’s take:
The Forest Service is notorious for flagrantly violating the law in regards to the mandatory standards for providing information requested with a FOIA. They have been known to stall for years, or have simply refused to comply. Not every citizen seeking information from their government has a petty cash account with $400 for the filing fee, or the tens of thousands of dollars it could take to pay attorneys for a FOIA lawsuit. Our citizens deserve transparency. However, it also seems unusual to file a lawsuit approximately 26 business days, as Linn County did, after initially submitting the FOIA — just 6 days over the 20-day requirement.
(I’m not sure what the $400 would be for.)
The comments and references to other fires are also interesting. Especially related to size of fires, and changes in suppression strategies over time.