How One Forest Had 120 Fires in the Last Two Years but Only Burned a Total of 70 Acres: From Wildfire Today

I thought that this would be of special interest to TSW readers from SW Oregon. Now everyone might not agree with this approach, but it seems to me that George has some powerful arguments.  Also, we can’t forget that keeping large acreages of trees from burning up is good for carbon.  It’s a story about a forest which has been successful at keeping wildfires from burning up large areas using an approach that beefs up initial attack.   It comes from Wildfire Today in a post by Murry Taylor.  Well worth reading, and here’s an excerpt:

During the meeting Merv made it clear that the Regional Forester in Portland was aware and supported this strong IA approach. Dan wanted Chuck and I to also understand that he had had Merv’s full backing as well. And that he had told his crews that he would back them all the way. So, there you have it, the line authority of Supervisor, FMO, and crew leaders backing each other in the decisions they need to make when working fire.

The RRSNF approach: They didn’t depend solely on agency resources but went proactive with contract crews and engines during times of critical fire danger. They prepositioned smokejumpers from both Redmond and the BLM. They had a 20-person rappel crew and one hotshot crew—the Rogue River Shots. Rappel crews from other forests were called in as needed. This was all part of a preparedness Phase One and Phase Two program created and initiated on their own forest that went beyond the regular (Regional and National) preparedness level programs. It involved prepositioning a Type 1 helicopter, a Type 3 helicopter w/module, rappel crews, smokejumpers, engines, water tenders, etc.

As far as those critics who questioned how much money this cost, Merv George Jr. told us: I’ve spent millions on this forest fighting large fires since I got here. So, I’m not averse to spending money up front. One example is when a contract engine responded to and stopped a half-acre fire near Agness that had the potential to go big. If that fire had gone big, those savings alone could have made it all worth it.

As Merv made clear, we all know that fire needs to be returned to the forest landscape. The Rogue River-Siskiyou N.F. is on pace to have a record year with prescribed fire. But fire does NOT need to be there in summers of record low fuel moistures and record high fire danger, or in the hottest times of the year. These fires must be put out early and fast. If they’re not, then you end up facing August with exhausted crews scattered all over the West, people from other areas and maybe even agencies working fire on your turf, and skies filled with smoke so that air resources cannot be used effectively.

When it comes to safety, this is something Merv George Jr. thinks about a lot. It’s a calculated risk to encourage vigorous IA, since it can mean extra exposure early in most fire suppression efforts. Such actions can put people in harms way. But, to hold back and risk a fire growing large where it can really do a lot of damage for a long duration, is not—in Merv’s opinion—the most responsible choice.


14 thoughts on “How One Forest Had 120 Fires in the Last Two Years but Only Burned a Total of 70 Acres: From Wildfire Today”

  1. So this robust IA is what we did back on the Willamette NF in the 80s, we had plenty of timber $$ and a very large workforce to jump on anything that came up, and also burned everything that was left from the huge clearcut timber sales, but when the burns got away from us, it was “Learn not to burn”, so we were of 2 minds, never really figured it out. So now not letting it burn has come back to haunt us, overstocked stands have contributed to the mega fires in the last couple of years on the Willamette NF. So do we remember what happened just a few decades ago? Doesn’t seem so.

    • The Park Service still does their burning during the hot summer months. The Meadow Fire in Yosemite was a perfect example of things going to Hell … ‘in about an hour’. Triple digits in August, to burn 90 acres. They missed their window of down-slope winds, and the embers happily jumped the firelines into thick brush, hiding ancient fallen snags.

    • Tom, that’s why I think it’s important to have a place like TSW where us old folks can share our experiences with current employees and students.. I’ve noticed that much of the pre-internet info is not available, so that makes it more important to share what we have learned.

      • Sharon, ironically, before I retired from the FS 10 years ago, my last job in my 38 year career was with the CIO, they gave me a 13, and a couple of part time helpers, my main task was to go around in R6 & R3, where I had spent most of my time when not on fires in R5, trying to convince, plead, show people at the district level to take the stuff in their filing cabinets and map cases and inter it into databases and GIS so we would have some of this historic data to actually use. Needless to say, I don’t think that worked very well, so it was time to go.

        • Tom.. I think that this is very interesting. Would you be willing to write a post about this effort? Because it’s possible that there could be a volunteer effort to do it if it’s not too late.

  2. Regarding the comment, “… we can’t forget that keeping large acreages of trees from burning up is good for carbon,” this has been a misunderstanding of what fires do. Most of the carbon from wildfires are left in the forest in burned stems and trunks while only a small amount is released. Logging, and especially clearcutting, removes all the carbon in addition to the logging process, transporting, milling, etc. Some is stored in the products but only accounts for a small amount. Fires and logging are not comparable at all and never have been for the essential climate goals and other environmental and long-lasting economic benefits.

    • But Larry, this isn’t a choice of burning up or logging. As per this post, it’s simply about burning up versus not burning up. Whether to log seems to me to be a separate decision.

      I don’t think it’s a “misunderstanding” …

      Do believe these CARB figures..? Just about the Calif fires..

      Those roughly 9,600 fires burned nearly 4.2 million acres, killed 31 people, and emitted an estimated 112 million metric tons of carbon dioxide, according to a California Air Resources Board report released Dec. 31. The number is akin to the greenhouse gas emissions of 24.2 million passenger cars driving in a single year, according to a calculator from the U.S. Environmental Protection Agency.

      I’m not an expert myself, but do you have a different view of these numbers?

      • From a Bloomberg article today:

        “Wildfires from Greece to Siberia this year weren’t just devastating for forests and economic livelihoods, they also emitted an estimated 1.7 billion tons of carbon dioxide into the atmosphere, according to the European Union’s satellite program Copernicus.

        “That’s roughly equivalent to half the EU’s total annual emissions, according to a report released this week. The worst-hit regions, North America and Siberia, were responsible for the bulk of pollution. The Sakha Republic in northeast Russia recorded the highest summer-time total since the dataset started in 2003.”

    • I see all the value of not logging under blue tarps on Salem sidewalks every trip to Salem, Oregon. Fortunately, my 1940 house still has its original sequestered carbon. But when I read some of the post Biscuit reports from the Babyfoot Lake RNA long term 400 plus dedicated soil research plots that reported the tons of N lost to conflagration. The inches of mineral soil left with the fire plume to fall thousands of miles elsewhere. The total loss of all organic material many inches deep in the soil profile. But that was only in the super heated plot areas. Some plots were mostly intact, soil wise. A gamut of impacts and even unturned spots for controls.
      Half million, and now million acre fires, are no way benign events.
      If humans are to continue to exist, they will continue to impact peoples Polaroids seared in memory. Everything organic is doomed to oxidation at some speed or manner. The only question is how to deal with it for now and the probable future.
      My example is Chinook salmon. 200 million year old species I once read. If dams with fish ladders and downstream passage pathways for smolts, in the Snake River, is a clarion call to remove those dams, why was the 2021 Snake Chinook run larger the the Yukon River runs, the Yukon undammed anywhere in its watershed? Or the Snake return by percent, higher than the rest of the Columbia watershed? Why didn’t Missoula floods and massive landslides and lava flows wipe out Chinook? They adapted to their environment IF the dams have passage for them. Hence, I can only believe bureaucratic and political insanity drives the dam razing just like fuel management is logging and stand removal fire is preferable to tree removal and underburning.

      So, as long as inmates run the green asylum, the Region 5 Forester gets promoted to Chief, best you purchase an asbestos robe to wear over the asbestos Speedo. Do your stretching, stay limber, so you can kiss your ass goodbye because fuel burns, not climate, not weather. Relic forests like Sequoias are not replaceable and evolved with fire, but not without indigenous fire setters. Odd how an indigenous forest supervisor is ignoring English majors on forest management and fire protection. He will tour the Bootleg fire as will others of his station, to see what burned and what didn’t. So will I. Last time I drew an Interstate deer tag there was efforts being made to leave yellow belly pines, and make 1000 foot long shovel piled slash piles to burn in winter. Will be interesting to see how that area fared with conflagration fire.

      My experience was on the Umpqua NF, where I worked for a contractor who piled, hand piled! , 26 small clear cut units near Bulldog Prairie. A semi load of plastic rolls to cover piles. I subsequently hunted elk there for six years. Not a pile was ever burned. Not on any unit. Plastic got brittle and cracked. Reprod grew ten feet tall. 26 tons of petroleum based plastic oxidized into the ether. There were so many subsequent fires north and east of Steamboat we hunted north and east of that area after so much access was lost.

      USFS WATCHED the Opal Creek Wilderness Fire they named Beechie Fire for Beechie Ridge. Bad optics to Cal it Opal Fire. When the Lionshead fire rode autumnal exquinox Arctic high produced east winds west over the Cascade Crest the Beechie Fire was the heat low within the west coast Lee side valley heat low from Sacramento to Vancouver Island, and sucked the growing inferno to the watched fire. Duh. Wilderness is too hazardous to put firefighters in. Why they have rappel crews, helicopter water dumps. Opal Creek Blow Torch milled people. Sovereign immunity protects the USFS. PERIOD. So the damaged and injured are suing the power utilities because bad Federal management is bulletproof. Rate payers are on the hook for power line caused fire when high winds blow wood onto energized power lines. De-energize the lines with predicted wind and they get sued because the pump couldn’t pump, the freezer thawed. But by God, we stopped them from logging and today we are suing to stop them from “mugging a burn victim.” The dead forest. Not the harmed humans.

      The Biden Administration then decides to double the tariff on Imported Canadian lumber (USFS NO LOGGING has real two fold economic results: landscape fire and importing finished lumber.). We can’t even supply 50% of lumber demand when the forest preservers cry for affordable housing.

      The answer, of course, is blue tarp housing on city streets and in parks, under underpasses. Bicycle chop shops, stripped stolen cars, and now stealing Gucci bags to resell on Etsy.

      The forest and fire issues are more than just that: huge disconnect between upper middle class wealth and the tech displaced labor class. Yes, mills automated for accuracy and recovery, and resulted in fewer jobs. Logging out people in steel cages on tracks to run hot saws to safely fell timber. Processors and forwarders to space trees so they grow faster, taller. Also removes fuel. Downside is silver thaw ice storms that broke off so many young tree tops. Three steps forward, and the a fire step back followed by an ice storm step back.

      322 million people. All need shelter, work, physical and mental health care. And a paralyzed government driven by ideologies promoting a failed paradigm of governance. Get that asbestos Speedo. And lose some weight. You might have to outrun Covid and fire at the same time. Pretty evident that progressive run government won’t help you one bit.

  3. A few summers ago the Rouge Siskiyou let a lighting fire burn for a month or more until the East winds came up and almost burned Brooking, Oregon. During the summer months I think is prudent to put the fires out when you can. Way to go Merv George! The lost of old growth and forest habitat from the likes of Checo Bar fire should be unacceptable.

  4. One reason Merv George is having good luck with fire suppression the past few years is because most fuels have already been substantially removed on his forest by the four Kalmiopsis Wilderness fires during the past 35 years: the 1987 Silver Complex, the 2002 Biscuit, the 2017 Chetco Bar, and the 2018 Klondike.

    I have never been able to find out whether the rare endemic plants that were the basis for the creation of the Kalmiopsis have benefited or been damaged by these fires.

    • I bet the forest botanist on that forest would know. I’ve had good luck with calling the main number of forests and asking for the specialist I need (or public affairs). If you find out, you might want to write a post.

      • Thanks Sharon:

        That hasn’t worked in the past, but now is probably a good time to try again — been curious about this for a while and a post is probably a good idea!

    • Not to mention the labor day Slatter fire of 2020. I have seen areas that were reburned that have totally eliminated the forests that were once there. It can’t have been good for the Port Orford Cedar forests that are no more.
      Tan oak forests seem to be the first to take over, but with sudden oak death it will be interesting to see what our forests look like in the future. The private ground will become Douglas Fir plantations.
      The FS land will be left to whatever happens.


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