WSJ: USFS’s New Fire Supression Tactics

Wall St. Journal yesterday (emphasis added):

After Tamarack Fire, the U.S. Plans New Tactics to Fight West’s Flames

The U.S. Forest Service pledged to more aggressively fight new wildfires that could threaten communities in the drought-ravaged West, after state and local officials criticized it for letting an initially small blaze grow out of control and destroy 14 homes.

The head of the Forest Service, Randy Moore, in a letter to staff on Monday, said extreme drought and the Covid-19 pandemic are limiting the agency’s resources and it would as a result focus primarily on fires that threaten communities and infrastructure. Until the current wave of Western fire activity abates, he said, the agency wouldn’t use prescribed burns in high risk areas or manage natural fires to help thin overgrown forests.

The Forest Service decided not to fight the Tamarack Fire south of Lake Tahoe when it started with a lightning strike to a tree on July 4 and was a quarter-acre in size for the next week. The Forest Service said it made its decision out of concerns that the terrain was unsafe to insert crews.

Less than a week later, extreme winds fanned the fire into a raging inferno that blackened 70,000 acres in California and neighboring Nevada and prompted the evacuation of hundreds of residents. As of Monday, the fire—among the largest of dozens burning in the West—was 82%-contained.


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12 thoughts on “WSJ: USFS’s New Fire Supression Tactics”

  1. Seems that the debate on good versus bad fire has died down on this site quite a bit this last week or two. As a California resident, I can see why…the infrastructure losses, forest mortality and lives decimated by these fires make for some bad PR for folks who argue that we ought to forego preventative managment.

    • Your version of preventative management is a joke… You can in no way treat millions of acres every year and you certainly can’t treat acres with certainty that a fire will burn in that area the following year or year(s).

      What you can do is realize how climate change is boosting global wind speeds and when you double wind speed you quadruple the energy input that goes into a fire, which is why the amount of acres burning every years correlates to the amount of increased global warming every year. Until we get off fossil fuels and reduce carbon in the atmosphere wildfire is going to get worse and worse regardless of the available fuel loading.

      Please learn the basics of what it takes for an ignition source to turn into a catastrophic wildfire! Fuels is a very small percentage of what makes a fire whereas oxygen/wind, especially in high temps and low humidity is the primary driver of all fires.

      It’s why a rocket launching into outer space carries 80% of its fuel by weight as liquid oxygen and only 20% as propellent; it’s why drag race cars but massive turbos boosters on their air intake not the fuel line; it’s why a cutting torch has a larger tank of oxygen than fuel; it’s why when your campfire has wood on it and starts to go out you reposition the wood to let more air get in as well as blow on it.

      These are basic concepts of combustion and if you weren’t so monomaniacally obsessed with logging-based fuel management you would be able to accept the basic science of combustion rather than dishonest propaganda to further erode what little forest protection regulation we currently have.

      • A quick aside is in order to point out that turbochargers are an almost complete disanalogy here, and actually could be construed to support the opposite point (that fuel density matters), as the increase in volume of air being pumped into the manifold has to be matched by a corresponding volume of fuel, managed by the injection system (and its attendant computer) in modern vehicles. Turbochargers themselves simply compress air into the intake, yes, but there is a whole suite of fuel management tech on the other side of the system that causes this analogy regarding air as the only real variable in combustion to fail. The above is geared to gasoline engines, of course, though diesels use non-homogenous fuel-air mixtures over their power curve, relying even more on the amount of fuel to increase torque output under load.

        But there’s no real sense in spending time tinkering on a failed analogy (consider the amount of clarification that needs to be done to make the point that the fuel ratio actually is often richer in turbocharged race-type vehicles, high air compression ratios notwithstanding, due to the fact that extra cooling is needed and provided by atomized and unburnt fuel’s phase-change in the cylinder head after the main ignition cycle. We have gone far from the mechanics of wildland fuels).

        So, moral of the story: don’t try to use analogies you don’t understand.

      • Deane, you speak like you know me and my background very well. Have we met? Do you live in California? I don’t think you’d be so flippant and aggressive if you were going through the season we are.

  2. Well I suppose “more aggressively” may be a key operative word. Right now there are wildfires burning up & down the cascades from the Sierras to Canada, including several on the Mt. Hood. Two within the Bull of the Woods Wilderness area will be “managed” with the intent of keeping them within Wilderness boundary. It’s early August with the most severe drought in over 100 years with no appreciable rain expected for over 45 days. What will keep those fires within Wilderness without some form of aggressive action to suppress them? Or perhaps the Mt. Hood did not receive the memo from the Chief?

  3. Kinda like criticizing the crew of the Titanic for not patching the hole in the ship. You can only fight so many fires and with 8 million lightning strikes hitting this planet every day you have to do triage.

    Remote difficult terrain that’s hard to safely get crews into are inevitably going to be lower priority until the amount of area burning starts to take off.

    With the tremendous lack of remaining fire resilient forests that have survived multiple fires during extreme fire weather conditions which seem to not let up anymore in Summer in California there’s no one who would argue for letting the fire burn out on its own.

    And it’s going to be many decades if not centuries of regrowing thick barked trees with no ladder fuels before we can return to a beneficial natural fire regime that can be kept to low and moderate intensity.

  4. My read of the WSJ article is that initial decision to not send crews in was based on terrain that was judged to be an unacceptable safety risk for crews. As a former USFS Red Carded Crew Boss that makes sense to me.
    Some questions to ponder —
    1. When are the elected officials who are criticizing fire management and who are likely in poor physical condition going to recognize that wildland firefighters literally put their lives on the line each shift?
    2. When are those elected officials going to modify their zoning, planning and related decisions and STOP PERMITTING NEW HOMES in the WUI?
    3. When are they going to change their building codes to MANDATE MEASURES to reduce home ignition risk? Lots of good info videos on line if you search for “home ignition.”
    4. When are homeowners going to take responsibility for their actions and take concrete steps to fireproof their homes?

    It’s total BS to put all of this on the land management agencies and especially on seasonal crews who work damn hard for relatively low pay and NO benefits!
    Fire is here to stay and likely will increase in intensity as the climate changes even more.

    PREVENTIVE MEASURES are needed – ASAP!! Fire suppression is like going to the ER after you have a heart attack because your diet, sedentary lifestyle, etc. put you in a high risk category! It’s too late then! Local policies and homeowner practices MUST CHANGE !!

  5. OW… I agree that not permitting new homes in the WUI might be a good idea, but there are many problems with that.

    1. There are lots of people already in the WUI and in towns whose houses are getting burned.
    2. Housing expands to the WUI in many places because people can’t afford to live closer in.

    Yes communities and landowners in fire prone areas have responsibilities, but suppression will always be a part of the puzzle.

    I don’t think that this is a criticism of land management agencies.. but in this time, as the Govs told the Sec, of Covid problems with firefighters, lack of resources, problems obtaining fuel for airplanes, it may not be the time to take on additional risk.

  6. Really, this is a non-issue, for the most part. Very few of the ‘decision-makers’ want to let local fires burn on their Ranger District, regardless of some twisted view of perceived benefit, during an extreme drought. Moore and Vilsack basically told western Governors what they wanted to hear. Meanwhile, fire managers will continue to use the ‘safety card’, in lieu of a lack of IA resources. Moore did not wave a magic wand and bring in more firefighters. Vilsack and Moore can use this opportunity to get more funding and new laws, from Congress. I guess this is always what it takes to get more funding from a hyper-partisan Congress. Tragedy brings more funds, apparently.

  7. “The Forest Service said it made its decision out of concerns that the terrain was unsafe to insert crews.” So is the new policy to insert crews where it’s unsafe?

    • No matter what the big-wigs say, many wildfires have to be (safely) fought using indirect attack. Didn’t Obama direct Federal firefighters to stop letting wildfires burn, as a political move, during an election year? I’m hoping that firefighters will “Fight fire aggressively but provide for safety first”.


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