NPR Story on (Some) Fire Experts Against FS 90-Day Review of Prescribed Fire

I thought this NPR story was interesting.
Here’s the headline
Ecologists say federal wildfire plans are dangerously out of step with climate change

As far as I know from talking to a variety of folks, most fire ecologists and fire experts would agree with this claim:
Claim 1. Prescribed fire mostly works (especially in the East and South), but the FS needs to up its game with improved technology, better practices, less pressure on individuals for acres, more and better trained people, and so on.

Claim. 2. This is due to some combination of previous fire suppression, more housing, so that escapes are more dangerous (and perhaps have fewer suppression options), availability of suppression forces in the case of unwanted expansion, and climate change- all these factors in some unknown combination, making a new and increasingly combustible (so to speak) mix of conditions.

Please add your own thoughts on claim 1 or 2, or your own claims, in the comments.

On May 20, USFS Chief Randy Moore halted all so-called prescribed fires on its land for a 90-day safety review. The New Mexico fire has burned more than 340,000 acres and is still not fully contained.

But many fire ecologists and forestry experts are concerned that this “pause” is only worsening the wildfire risk. Critics say it’s merely masking the agency’s dangerously incremental, outdated and problematic approach to intentional burns and fire mitigation, a policy that has failed to adapt to climate change and megadrought.

Of course, many other ones, not cited in the story would not agree.  But logically, I don’t get this.. how much PB would the FS be doing IN THE SUMMER in the west. Let’s see, 90 days from May 20 is August 20. And the FS was having trouble hiring enough firefighters to handle wildfire this summer. So what possible PBs would be happening through that time?

Well, in the scientists’ letter, they say:

Today, we ask you to consider re-instating prescribed burning in areas on US National Forests that are not in extreme drought during the 90-day pause. For example, Regions 8 and 9 are not currently experiencing drought, have a long history of success stories with prescribed fire, and show strong need for growing season burning. The recent NOAA drought forecast for the US shows that much of the area of Regions 8 and Region 9 will be amenable to continued burning actions. Moreover, allowing FS scientists to collect data on prescribed burns conducted by non-federal partners during this period would likewise maintain a national leadership stance in the study of prescribed fire. Once the national review is complete and it is deemed safe to do so, we ask that you consider re-instating prescribed burning in the American Southwest and the western US, even if this occurs before the end of the 90-day pause.

It seems like they’re mostly talking about the Midwest and the South, which of course is not where people are concerned about accumulations leading to fire risk (and who, arguably do PB more often, with fewer undesirable results). So that statement does make sense (allow prescribed burning to continue) but not for the reason given (excessive fuel accumulations in the West).

But perhaps the 90 days is giving the FS a chance to “improve its dangerous… etc. approach.” Or set in motion longer term efforts to improve the approach. Why wouldn’t we think that’s what they’re doing?

Hurteau and others are concerned that the Forest Service — and other fire agencies — continue to fail to put climate change at the fore of decision-making, despite mounting scientific evidence and the agency’s own stated goals about reducing dangerously high levels of built-up fuel in western forests.

But what does it mean in practice to put “climate change at the fore?” Clearly one possibility is..conditions are different due to CC and we don’t exactly understand them, so let’s be very very careful with PB, more careful than we were before. But it doesn’t sound like the the scientists are arguing that in their letter.

Numerous sections of the report underscore that point, including noting that prescribed fire officials failed to realize it was set “under much drier conditions than were recognized.”

But was that a “climate change” thing, or a “measurements that the FS didn’t do correctly at the site” kind of thing (my reading of the report was the latter)? And if climate change doesn’t translate to something measurable (fuel moisture or air temp or humidity) at the site, are we missing measuring something really important?

For those reasons and others, experts worry that the agency’s prescribed fire “pause” is little more than political window dressing that tapes over those ongoing, glaring gaps between rhetoric and reality. Hurteau notes that just about all of the peer reviewed research on the issue as well as the Forest Service’s own plans for reducing hazardous forest fuels call for a historic scaling-up of prescribed burns.

“The question remains: Is the agency ready to make changes to the point that it will create conditions where the personnel, their personnel can do that effectively and that they’re well supported and well-resourced in order to accomplish those goals?”

Well, that is one question. Another question is whether the FS can build the coalitions with governments and other institutions to make that happen, including social license for that practice.
Anyway, just by reading this article, you might get the impression:

(1) The FS is really messed up.
(2) But experts feel that they should keep burning while they figure out how not to be messed up.

Which is not the impression I get from the actual scientists’ letter. I’m feeling quite sympathetic to reporters who try to navigate this..

And of course (predictably) a solution from me..

I think we’ve probably put zillions of dollars into modeling and technology development (say drones for sensing temperatures in burn piles, and models of varying degrees of accuracy and timeliness) but I wouldn’t be surprised if there were a major gap between what is funded versus what is practical. So one suggestion would be to have a prescribed fire practitioner/researcher panel jointly determine key questions and approaches to any research purported to be helpful to PB.

16 thoughts on “NPR Story on (Some) Fire Experts Against FS 90-Day Review of Prescribed Fire”

  1. For starters, the entire chain of command of this controlled burn team need to be indicted for criminal negligence and lose everything they own for the billions in dollars in damages they caused. If I lost my home to these idiots I wouldn’t back down until they were sentenced and in jail for as long as possible!

    All the most reputable meteorologists who have covered this tragedy have made it clear that even a cursory study of on the ground weather conditions pointed to a situation that would of been impossible to safely complete the controlled burn:

    Secondly, as a Forest Service biologist in ’96 said when driving us out to another dog & pony show on Willamette NF: “creating change in the forest service is like pushing a rope.” So it should come as no surprise that now that they’re using climate change as an excuse for their own criminal negligence, they still have no interest in actually changing anything to address climate change or even their own negligence. Just more wimpering about how dangerous wildfires would be if they can’t do controlled burns anymore.

    It’s alot like people who think weeding a garden is about firing up the weed wacker, which does nothing to stop the weeds from growing back. You have to dig up the weeds by the roots and replace the weeds with long lasting vegetation/cultivate the soil so the weeds don’t take over, but become less of an issue over time.

    Similarly, if you have too much carbon in the atmosphere that’s making periods of catastrophic wildfire risk more frequent, claiming you’re protecting the landscape with controlled burns that itself puts more carbon in the atmosphere is the same kind of stupid as weedwacking rather than digging up weeds by the roots.

    Or in this case it means that as each year goes by that carbon in the atmosphere goes up the amount of days available to safely do controlled burns will be fewer and fewer till we get to the point that we actually WTFU and realize we’re fast approaching a time when the practice of controlled burns will no longer be considered safe at any time and they will be banned entirely.

    That’s the inevitable nature of trying to cure symptoms while ignoring the disease. The disease just keeps getting worse and worse because it’s not being treated directly. And maybe for a hospice patient that’s all you can do, but for the only planet we have, that’s not a sane or sensible option for anyone!

  2. Fire has removed an estimated 100 million ponderosa pine so far this year and the monsoon season in New Mexico is putting billions of gallons into stressed watersheds.

    “‘Approximately one century of fire suppression in the watershed has resulted in a highly modified ponderosa pine forest structure that is more prone to high-intensity and high-severity wildfires,’ the report states.”

  3. Transpiration from New Mexico’s forests have provided thunderstorm rainfall for Oklahoma, Texas and Kansas for far too long. These wildfires will enable us to keep more of our water instead.

    • Lol… It’s raining again in Western Washington today (July 5th). It’s been cloudy since last October with just a handful of sunny days thanks to La Nina.

      So from up here looking down at your notion that New Mexico is going to “keep more of our water” because USFC just holocausted near 1/2 million acres due to a prescribed fire blunder and they’ll be less transpiration, kinda reminds me of the lobster that is looking forward to getting into some fresh water even if it might be hotter because it’s on a stove; or more simply the pot calling the kettle black.

  4. The forest service is supposed to be the expert and know what its operationally doing at all times. Hermits Peak is clear evidence the fs was asleep at the wheel and caused a headon crash with the lives and property of hundreds maybe thousands of victims. Of all the connected experts , scientist who among them was trying to contact usfs before hermit peak and warn them of the danger of lighting the place up. ? None, zero , nada ? In other words its just blind mans bluff , and we were all making a living with prescribe burning which in a courtroom a sharp lawyer to have a fiesta reviewing the expert claims of a beneficial science versus the evidences and aftermath. I would add witnessing all this that their is little higher intelligence involved. It takes decades for wood to grow and once the resource is present fools say , ” ok lets burn it now” , and they call it science or a productive fs plan…something very wrong with all that and until someone appears at the top with intelligence to actually save the full resource and implement constructive planning things will obviously continue on more destructive practices. Writing is on the wall now , the blackened forest , the hundreds of burned out homes, will either be seen or ignored by those who have been spinning a roulette wheel of forest burning. Further spins of the roulette wheel of fire will result in the category of gross negligence.

    • I agree with what you’re saying Tricky Dick… What’s more, if the USFS makes this same catastrophic mistake a few more times, I’ve no doubt that it will lead to disbanding of the forest service entirely! What a joyous day that will be!

      Truth is, as time goes by it’s looking more and more like the best way to manage our federally-owned public lands is to turn them over to the US Fish & Wildlife who have an agenda that’s still compatible with what little is left of our thoroughly plundered public lands.

  5. We have some very simple rules of thumb to help interpret why things keep happening without ever learning the lessons. In regard to agencies, I’ll repeat the Iron Law of Institutions:

    “The people who control institutions care first and foremost about their power within the institution rather than the power of the institution itself. Thus, they would rather the institution ‘fail’ while they remain in power within the institution than for the institution to “succeed” if that requires them to lose power within the institution.”

    Solution? Fire the Chief and make it widely known why the Chief is being fired. Anyone ever hear of Respondeat Superior? But no. Heads NEVER role from the top in this country. There should be a 90 day pause while looking for a new Chief. But it’ll never, ever, happen because we don’t hold the elite accountable in this country unless one of two things happen: (i) they steal from other elite (see Bernie Madoff/Enron) or they make a fools of the elite (see Epstein and Maxwell).

    To paraphrase Carlin, “It’s one big Ivy League and you ain’t in it.”
    Nothing fundamental will change unless we change things fundamentally.
    I’ll keep coming back to these concepts until they become rote.

    • Eric, I don’t see the Chief as one of the “elite”. He’s an SES career person. But why pick him? How about the Sec of Ag or the Prez? I don’t know what’s right, but I would be for us laying that out and applying it irrespective of topic area.

      Now many folks who I have supervised, my peers, and those who supervised me.. would say I am so not an organizational person. But given that…

      I don’t think this needs a change at the top (of the Chief, the Deputy nor the Director), actually I think change requires a steady hand on the reins and lowering the potential for interpersonal jockeying for position drama. That is very disruptive and makes key people take their eyes of the ball. This is no time for that. IMHO.

      FWIW I don’t mind you coming back to those concepts.

      • Oh, it doesn’t matter really. I just picked the chief as an example. It could be one, or all of them. Point being, leaders lead. If there is a problem, the leader is ultimately responsible. Real change won’t occur until the leadership is punished; thereby, setting the example for the future.

        But, as we’ve recently observed, it’s rather hard to fire the prez in these partisan times. To his credit though, Trump did understand this concept well and the fealty it engendered is still sending shockwaves through the elite circles.

  6. Chief Moore said that before widespread settlement in the West populations of ponderosa pine were about forty per acre but are as high as 600 per acre today. Besides, stands of high-VOC ponderosa pine are explosive under red flag conditions. It’s like charcoal starter fumes just waiting for a spark.

    In contrast the Cerro Pelado Fire took place in burn scars from the 2019 Conejos Fire, the 2017 Cajete Fire, the 2013 Thompson Ridge Fire, the 2011 Las Conchas Fire and in the 2000 Cerro Grande Fire.

        • Is this lateral?

          Top Forest Service official during N.M. blaze assigned to D.C. post
          Debbie Cress will serve as acting deputy chief of staff in the office of Forest Service Chief Randy Moore. Her assignment in Washington will last four months.

          | 07/11/2022 04:32 PM EDT
          E&E NEWS PM | The supervisor of a national forest that erupted in flames earlier this year has been temporarily assigned to a post in Washington as New Mexico looks to recover from its largest wildfire in record history and the Forest Service reviews its prescribed burn policies.

          Debbie Cress will serve as acting deputy chief of staff in the office of Forest Service Chief Randy Moore. Her replacement to oversee the northern New Mexico forest was named Friday, but some have questioned the timing, given that the wildfire has yet to be declared contained and recovery work has just begun.

          Forest officials have dismissed criticism, saying the opportunity for Cress to work at headquarters initially came up in January and was the culmination of her work over the past year with the agency’s leadership.

          Cress acknowledged in a statement Friday that it was difficult timing as her home state deals with the aftermath of the massive wildfire. But she said local, state and federal officials have a unified commitment to post-fire repairs and to meeting the needs of the communities that depend on Sangre de Cristo mountain range for firewood and water supplies.

          The blaze is the result of two planned burns that were meant to clear out overgrown and dead vegetation to reduce the threat of catastrophic wildfire. Instead, hot, dry and windy conditions helped push the flames across 534 square miles of the Rocky Mountain foothills, destroying hundreds of homes and upending the lives of thousands of rural residents.

          A recent review highlighted multiple missteps by Forest Service employees in planning for the prescribed fires, most notably a failure to fully grasp how dry conditions have become amid New Mexico’s decadeslong drought.

          About 2,000 miles of dozer lines were carved into mountainsides and valleys, while firefighters armed with hand tools scratched in another 176 miles in hopes of corralling the fire.

          Massive quantities of fire retardant and water were dropped by planes and helicopters to protect the community of Las Vegas and other small villages, but it was really the start of the monsoon season in June that helped to slow flames that had been churning since early April.

          The price tag for suppression now totals $275 million, officials told the Associated Press. Another $2.5 million is going toward road work, storm inspection, seeding, debris removal and the protection of sites considered important to residents.

          Cress’ assignment in Washington will last four months. Carson National Forest Supervisor James Duran will lead the Santa Fe forest until Cress returns from her assignment.

          Agency officials said such work details are common across the Forest Service and are used as both professional development and a way to continue with agency business pending a permanent hire.

          Joe Reddan, a retired ranger who used to work in northern New Mexico, told the Santa Fe New Mexican that even if Cress had been working on the assignment for months, she should have refrained from going.

          “It’s not going to help her out, and it’s not going to help the credibility of the agency,” he said, noting the lessons that could be learned from what happened and how to deal with the people affected by such catastrophic fires.

          The Forest Service is in the midst of a formal review of its prescribed fire operations nationwide that was prompted by the New Mexico blaze and fire danger levels that reached historic levels this spring. All planned burns have been put on hold pending the outcome.

          • I don’t know.. hope someone else does. But my old person memory is that most Supes are 15s. I think the next level above that (unless you’re a scientist) is SES. I don’t think Chiefs of Staff are SES but probably not acting deputies. So given what I know from the past I’d guess lateral. Anyway, that’s my logic, others?

  7. OK, I did some checking around.
    Chief of Staff is indeed SES.

    Among my retiree associates who have dealt with escaped PBs, they tend to think Standard Operating Procedure is to 1) wait until the report comes out, then 2) move Ranger, Supe, FMOs, depending on what the report says. The point is to move them to a generally less prestigious and or desirable location. But this isn’t about grade because you can’t easily demote someone. Then they could file a grievance and … it could be years of wrangling.

    This situation raises two concerns in terms of “optics”. 1. They didn’t wait for the final report (this could be due to threats to the Supe, family needs, we don’t know the backstory) but it could appear that this is actually not a “less prestigious” position (but still it’s only a detail; still timing is questionable). 2. Might give the impression that to the FS, maintaining their cultural values (going on details for career development) is more important than being with the communities in their grief and loss. And there’s also much pain within the staff no doubt.

    So the retirees I spoke with, who are generally hesitant to criticize the FS, and would never in public, also had concerns with the way this was handled, with the caveat that none of us know all the relevant details.


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