Can More Proactive Initial Attack Reduce Wildfire Acres? Guest Post by Murry Taylor

This StoryMap is pretty cool.

Background on this topic.  The below post may be highly controversial. I’m posting it because it’s a voice I haven’t heard in some of the media, which equates more burned acres simply to climate change and hence more future wildfire acres, in a fairly apocalyptic framing.  There are two problems with this in my view 1. it’s complex, so simplifying to one cause is actually not true and 2. it ignores all the levers we have to deal with wildfires before our energy is decarbonized, even ones we’re spending megabucks with defense contractors on like new technologies. 

This kind of reporting also ignores the people who actually work with wildfire and their views, which I’m sure are diverse, like any other group.  I see this as part of an ongoing trend to amplify the voices of coastal media and academics (people who work with words) and downplay the voices of people who work directly with things.  The downside of this amplification and deamplification, as I see it, is that by not hearing those voices, we (the people) think we can’t do the things we can do (to improve wildfire suppression, like the Tim Hart Act); and can do the things we can’t do (e.g., finishing forest plans in three years; putting it in a reg did not make it so). And weirdly (feature or bug?)  some disagreements, rather than discussed and understood, are simply dismissed by ad Partiem (I made that up and TSW Latin scholars can help) arguments (e.g. “Republicans are against WFU”).

So Murry can be right, wrong, or anywhere in between. I don’t know, this isn’t my area. But I think his voice needs to be heard and I’m not sure I’ve heard it elsewhere.

Guest post by Murry Taylor

I put this up on the Smokejumpers Facebook page yesterday. It’s in response to an article in a Seattle newspapter about the North Cascade Smokejumper Base in Winthrop, Washington. It’s gotten some attention with various groups pushing for more effective intial attack on wildfires in the west. Here’s what I wrote:

Murry Taylor here. I had 33 seasons fighting fire, 26 as a smokejumper. And now I’ve had 22 seasons on a Cal Fire lookout, so I’ve seen a lot of what I’m talking about. I’m also the author of Jumping Fire: A Smokejumpers Memoir of Fighting Wildfire. While I fully agree that poor forest management (as in accumulated fuels) has led to many of these big fires in the west, I want to point out something else here. One of the big reasons so much public land in the west has burned is the under-utilization of smokejumpers the past couple decades.  

I agree that this article is a pretty comprehensive look at current smokejumping, the work, the demands, the deep satisfaction. Glad I got to read it, but I wish it had included the fact that since 2020, the jumpers only averaged 4.5 fire jumps a season. That’s a terrible under-utilization of such a critical resource. In the past we easily jumped twice that many, and some years four times as many. I’ve seen it many times while on the lookout, Duzel Rock. Fires have not been staffed for a day or two and then gone big and cost tens if not hundreds of millions while the jumpers sat unused. There seems to be a lack of understanding among fire managers in the Forest Service about the capability of these jumpers. Dispatchers have said they didn’t put jumpers on a fire because the “trees were too tall,” or the “winds were too strong.” Clearly they didn’t understand that the jumpers carry 150 let-down ropes, and have a spotter in the plane throwing streamers, and know EXACTLY what the wind is over the fire. The good news is that things seem to be changing for the better. Allowing jumpers to get back to 10 plus fire jumps per season would save big money and lots of acres. For those who think we need to get more fire back on the land, all I can say is, Don’t worry, there’s going to be plenty of that given the way fires burn now. The policy of putting ALL these early season fires out while small would be a big help. That way, when August–the toughest part of fire season– comes the handcrews wouldn’t be scattered all over hell, exhausted, and the skies wouldn’t be filled with smoke so that Air Ops are critically limited. As I mentioned above, things seem to be changing, using jumpers more here and there on various forests in the west. Hopefully that will continue.

To go on here,  I talk with jumpers and hotshots all the time and they tell me that “Yes, sometimes the fuels and new fire weather are a factor in making fires harder to catch.” But MOSTLY, they say, there’s always something that can be done to catch these fires if they are hit while small. As I wrote in Smokejumper magazine last summer, the Rouge River-Siskiyou N.F. in Southern Oregon has taken a more aggressive approach to putting fires out small. In the last three seasons they’ve had 192 fires and ONLY burned 50 acres. This was achieved by prepositioning jumpers during lightning storms, better utilization of rappellers, and contract fire resources. You can read the full article on Wildfire Today by finding it in the archives here. It seems other forests are looking at that now and changes are in the wind. My latest novel, Too Steep and Too Rough tells the story of what I’ve seen as the big problem with weak initial attack here locally in the past two decades. Over and over, while on my lookout, Duzel Rock, I here that certain fires weren’t attacked early because the country was “too steep and too rough.”  


44 thoughts on “Can More Proactive Initial Attack Reduce Wildfire Acres? Guest Post by Murry Taylor”

  1. As always fire opinions have a wide arc. Here is my response to Murry’s FB post.

    This is a good topic to debate for sure Murry. Increasing acres burned does not equal all bad acres. I agree the News narrative needs to reflect this, but we have trained them well to fear Fire as bad into the public psyche ever since our good ole pal Smoky proclaimed ‘Only You’…

    I think at some point we need to anchor conversations using Regional Seasonality, BARC maps, ERC’s, Potential Opportunities for Delineation, Fire Management Plans etc etc to help the public understand how things have changed in 100 years and how we must adapt to Climate Change…. Vegetation continues to grow until fire recycles and renews…. This was the law of the land for millennia prior to colonization… Fire Ecology 101.

    Too many firefighters have paid the ultimate price for fighting fire in steep, rugged terrain. We owe it to them and future firefighters to work and respond better/smarter than we have in the past.

    I’m sure we are up to the task of Living With Fire, we have no choice.

    • Kelly, FWIW I was hoping that Forests could take a break from Forest Plan revisions and focus on Fire Amendments including PODs and fire management plans (for wildfire prone forests) until that work is completed. That would involve much local public involvement and knowledge. I’ve found that some local folks are wary of 1) models people somewhere else developed that doesn’t match their lived experience and 2) IC folks who may be from anywhere. Seems to me that this would be a good time to work together with the public and wildfire folks for some mutual understanding based on local places.

      In a previous iteration of this discussion, there was a NACO meeting where the notes I was given basically said “if people trust the local FS folks, they are comfortable with current policies.” Seems to be like fire amendments would help build that trust. And also help the all lands all hands idea.. scenarios.. tying in projects with evacuation routes and other community efforts. Anyway, haven’t gotten very far with that idea.

      • Totally agree Sharon. Forest Plan Revisions and/or Fire Plan Amendments need to have much more local public involvement and knowledge. Kinda flips planning on its head. Placed Based Collaboratives are on the rise. We need to support and FUND these efforts. Our current planning efforts and timelines are so protracted, we risk whole watersheds suffering undesirable loss of water capture and storage, loss of carbon sequestration, loss of biodiversity and public services; anyway I’m not saying anything folks haven’t heard before. I remain hopeful we can and will shift our narrative/ implementation to manage more ‘good fire’ on our public lands.

    • Kelly, With all due respect, it’s my view that this kind of thinking . . . “at some point we need to anchor conversations using Regional Seasonality, BARC maps, ERC’s, Potential Opportunities for Delineation, Fire Management Plans etc etc to help the public understand how things have changed in 100 years and, etc, etc…” IS PART OF THE PROBLEM. Yeah, those things likely need done but we need changes NOW not at some point. As far as I can tell, all this meeting and talking is getting nowhere. I talk to online firefighters ALL THE TIME, and I don’t think many are talking to their overhead. They tell me, “You’re waisting your time, Murry. It’s so bad now that nobody’s going to be able to change it.” And, what they’re talking about is this BACK OFF AND SLACK OFF because of EXCESSIVE SAFETY CONCERNS. I’ve heard dozens and dozens of stories from hotshot and private handcrews on how they’re held in camp day after day, knowing they could go out and get effective work done. And as for your “Too many firefighters have paid the ultimate price for fighting fire in steep, rugged terrain. We owe it to them and future firefighters to work and respond better/smarter than we have in the past.” I’m saying this is part of the problem, too. Just look at the South Canyon, and Yarnell Hill fires. On both those fires the initial attack was pitiful, delayed for a couple days. On South Canyon (started July 2–reported July 3), a BLM crew hiked in July 5th, got there midday, then left at 1730 because a chainsaw had broken down. One guy could have gone in with the saw, not the entire crew. Eight jumpers jumped that afternoon. The next day the fire went big and killed 14. On the Yarnell Hill fire–and this is not in the official report–the day the fire started a local and his girlfriend saw the strike and hiked up to it, then only about a quarter acre and skunking around. I know because the guy called me on the phone after the tragedy and wanted me to come down there and take a look at things since the investigation was not going right in his opinion. That very day, a neighbor offerred to take his dozer up and put a line around the fire. The state turned him down. The next day, the (I think) Capital Site volunteers offfered to go up and take that fire, and the state turned them down, too. I think it was the next day that people were put in and the tragedy happened. So, it’s not so much, ” firefighters have paid the ultimate price for fighting fire in steep, rugged terrain.” It’s that these tragedies happened on fires when initial attack was poor and failed to put them out small. What I think needs to happen is for the Chief of the FS to pick five forests in R-5 and R-6 and have them take on the Rogue River-Siskiyou program for five years. After that time, check the books, the money spent and acres burned and see where to go from there. That would take BOLD leadership–just like on the Rogue River-Siskiyou N.F. And (in my opinion)m that’s what’s lacking in the FS today, both in the Regional offices and in Washington.

      • Agree Murry – changes need to happen NOW. You have been around long enough to know bureaucratic institutions do not change on a dime. Debates such as this help to frame the ‘arc of opinions’ and subsequent changes which are desperately needed to address our current Wildfire Crisis. We are all well versed in ‘taking sides’ to try and convince one another that our view is the ‘correct view’ when in reality, somewhere in the middle is the truth.

      • It’s good to have an example like the Rogue River-Siskiyou – Oregon Department of Forestry has been frustrated for many years with how the Forest Service has changed their approach, which results in many more acres burned and greater resource loss. There was even a “tactical pause” on the 2020 Labor Day Fires in Oregon when the Riverside and Lionshead fires were getting close to each other because the FS wanted to back off and let them join together and ODF (and the private forest landowners whose land would have burned) did not want that. The FS does not see the value that is being burned, while ODF does. Of course, a large fire has started up on the Illinois River on the Rogue River-Siskiyou today in some very difficult (steep) terrain. I can tell the forest is putting the resources into play (2 VLATs, etc.), but that will be a tough one. It started near a campground, so I am hoping it was not human-caused.

  2. I think Murry has a lot of valid points. Despite how some feel, it’s not a fully natural world, and we have human values to protect, and things to protect due to human extraction issues in the past.

    I struggle with the idea of stomping out every single natural lightning fire, when that is a fully natural process. It gets murky when in the midst of historic droughts, when fire is burning near/in unnatural forest stands or vegetation (read as, plantations, fire exclusion).

    I think perhaps what could accompany some of Murry’s main points, about lack of Smokejumper use etc., is something that maybe Larry and others would agree on….most Forest Districts have transitory permanent employees, looking for the next promotion or career step, or long term employees in the -ology positions who know, but are not listened to, about what the landscape is like, the values present or *absent*, and what a fire in a certain watershed means and what it can do. The USFS has lost so much of that long term, ingrained local knowledge. So, it’s easier to say “no” because you don’t want to be the one answering to the Region Forester or Washington about why there was a firefighter death on *your* District/Forest fire.

    The Seattle Times article was well done. Despite some recent commenters who are new to Smokey Wire liking to disparage/write off their work, they do have some talented and knowledgeable environmental writers.

    • I do agree, but I cannot further emphasize the site-specific details of a cohesive fire/fuels vegetation management program. It’s difficult to craft unique plans, but that seems like it should be the path ahead, and something the Feds can actually do, if they do it smart. Collaboration, Consensus and Compromise still need to be completed in that order.

      • 100% agree Larry, on site-specific details. Unfortunately we have seen that is ripe for unhappy litigators, and maybe by the time you are almost done, the whole thing burns up anyway. I don’t want disparage anyone, but I do wonder when Teams come from Alaska, or the Midwest, how well they can understand fire in the southern Sierra or Klamath Mountains.
        Which is why you need a site-specific plan/knowledge for a program or action taken. And without motivated/talented and/or District/Forest workers with that local knowledge (both of those exist still in the USFS, just not as widely as they once were), I don’t think it will happen.

        Which means until then, if it can be accessed from a road, the hand crews will try to put everything out, with the aid of air attack, jumpers will be used less and less in the areas not readily accessible, and all the fancy models and research papers on future burned area will keep coming true, since we just don’t want to accept how many fires are caused by ignorant human actions.

    • Anon, this is a good and main point here, “The USFS has lost so much of that long term, ingrained local knowledge. So, it’s easier to say “no” because you don’t want to be the one answering to the Region Forester or Washington about why there was a firefighter death on *your* District/Forest fire.” Still, the Rogue River-Siskiyou N.F. did it, and it’s worked out great. That’s the bold leadershp needed to fix this problem.

  3. FWIW, I agree totally with Murry. And almost all my local fire services have adopted this strategy. Put it out quick. They are not using jumpers, but I want to keep that part of the story separate. Everyone means my City and Rural services, most if not all the other rural services in my county, and ODF. ODF, at least my local district, is adamant about “stop it while it’s small”. I think BLM is on board with this, since it contracts all fire service to ODF. But it just occurred to me that I should and can check on that. Then there’s Siuslaw National Forest. I have never seen them participate in any wildfire planning in our county, even though they are one of the largest forest landholders in the county. They also supply the major part of the water supply for the county’s largest city.

    The smoke jumper utilization issue strikes me as “right on”, especially since to my knowledge ODF makes no use of this tool. I will ask at both District and State level.

    Lastly, there’s the argument that ignitions can turn into events beneficial to the ecosystems. Maybe some places, under some circumstances. But on the east slope of the Coast Range, between Eugene and Salem – no! There’s way too much understory fuel, continuous fuel ladders extending for miles.

    Looking forward to seeing the original video.

    Thank you, Murry and Sharon,

  4. Murry is spot on; I started chasing fires in 1970, both forest and rangeland. Started as a grunt with a fire rake (Region 8), and then as a dozer operator. I had college level courses that involved wildfire and prescribed fire, with labs. We Southerners kinda grew up with burning. I was certified burn boss in Region 6 and “toted” many a suppression crews on our trips around the West. My dad was a fire boss 1, before ICS, so I’ve been around some smoke!

    What I have observed is, as many have pointed out, we don’t do much active management any more – but that is another story. Also, after ICS came along, it became taboo to speak poorly of fire response, unless you belonged in that stove-piped organization. Can you imagine turning down an assignment in the 1980’s? One very positive achievement is once awareness of risk, or risk management made its way into the discussions – at all levels, greater safety methodology came into play.

    We do not fight fire as aggressively as in the past. Is that good or bad? Saving lives? Meh, we have killed several firefighters each year doing pack tests alone. Big fires, managed fires (WFU) tend to not obey their intended outcomes. There are times fire use can be good; have a plan, have the local knowledge but for Heavens sake don’t “let fire burn” in April, May or June, in the West!

    Active, quick suppression unless the WFU parameters (and season) line up!

    • Why do we have to constrain wildfires that can be used to meet Forest Plan / Fire Management Plan objectives to months when they can and should be allowed to burn? When in fact early season fires in April, May and June, national planning levels are typically lower than August and September, resources are more readily available to ‘confine’ ‘contain’ fire spread. Active quick suppression works… until it doesn’t….We can’t nor should we try to use a metric of 100% success with aggressive initial attack on all natural ignitions. We have lost decades of many good natural ignitions which could have created a mosaic patchwork of fire footprints which would have tremendous value to us today and well into the future.

      • A. (I’m so not a fire person but…) it does make sense to me that times when resources are not constraining, fuel and weather conditions are right, the FS has made a decision with public involvement to allow WFU under certain conditions in those specific places, those would be the places and times for WFU.

        It seems like all this would be doable if coordinated intentionally between Forest Fire Plans and the fire suppression organization. But first the fire planning amendments and the public processes associated with them.. then PODS on the landscape.. and then forest and fire suppression folks could build toward a system that works for WFU.

  5. I agree 100% with Murry. Although I only had one season way back in 1977 of fighting fire for the USFS I can cite similarities and glaring differences.
    Cases in point. A lightning fire on Grasshopper Mountain in 1977 and the Cedar Creek Fire last summer. Both fires were very near my hometown. However, the results were far different.
    First, I will point out that both fires were ignited by lighting in nearly identical steep terrain and in old growth forest.
    What differed between these two fires separated by 45 years. In my opinion and that of many others, pulling initial attack personal from the Cedar Creek Fire due to difficult terrain and location resulted in 125000 acres incinerated a month after initial attack was “pulled back.”
    It’s easy to be a Monday morning quarterback. However, the fact that two 10 man crews back in 1977 were able to Corral and contain a fire in very similar terrain, forest, weather and climate on Grasshopper Mountain vs. The Cedar Creek Fire is eye opening.
    The Willamette National Forest recently released a report detailing the response to the Cedar Creek fire. One must wonder if the initial attack efforts had been sustained would 125000 acres been saved? Would the taxpayers have saved millions of dollars that the USFS could certainly use elsewhere?
    I certainly understand the reasoning to be cautious, especially when remembering the lives lost fighting fires in Arizona and Colorado that are etched in both memories and now policies.
    Although these tragic deaths happened in much different types of landscapes. There is a huge difference between semi desert fires vs. fighting fires in old growth forests of western Oregon. In fact, at one point early on during the Cedar Creek Fire it was reported as a ” creeping ground fire” by the Fire Spokesman. As the fire crept along the ground and steadily crew the USFS teams were “scouting for opportunities” to dig a fire line near and/or within the Waldo Lake Wilderness area. Nearly 100% of that 30,000+acre wilderness is now blackened.
    In the Willamette NF report they cited 4 deaths for fire fighters in Oregon in recent years. These were not attributable to being over ran by fire as in tge Man Gulch fire or the tragic fires in Colorada and Arizona. They were attributed to falling trees or limbs.
    At the fire I was on in 1977 on Grasshopper Mountain. Which was on the district border of the Blue River and Oakridge Ranger Districts. We were called out around midafternoon, drove withing a couple of miles below the fire and hiked up a nearly vertical mountain loaded with our gear. We arrived and began digging lines on one side of the fire as a crew from Blue River began on the other side as the fire grew and creeped up the mountain. We had posted spotters watching for burning material below us. Just before sunset we had called for and received a couple of retardant drops from Redmond. Yes, the retardant did help slow the fire even though the canopy was quite thick. We continued digging line and communicating with the crew from Blue River on the opposite side of the fire though the night and into the next day. We had no water resources, yet we were able to contain the fire within 24-36 hours with the only casualty being bee stings.
    1977 was in those days a very busy fire season for our Oakridge Ranger District. We traveled to Mount Hood and to Quartz Mountain near Lakeview for extended work. We were flown home after a couple days of R&R only to be sent out immediately to relieve office staff fighting lightning strikes on our district.
    Times and policies not only in forest management have changed as we learn from the past. Not always for the better. But I believe firefighting strategy needs constant evaluation as well. The comparison between the Cedar Creek Fire initial attack and many other lighting strike fires similar to the Grasshopper Fire I cited have been repeated many times in the last 30 years. I have no doubt that many USFS fire vets far more experienced than I will agree.
    As Murry stated, smokejumpers and local crews along with experienced hot shot crews being underutilized is not always the answer. Proper use could save thousands upon thousands of acres if used aggressively and safely. Safety and aggressive are not mutually exclusive. As with many debates, there does exist a common-sense middle ground. Yes, fire can be good for the landscape. But I challenge anyone to look at a 100,000 or bigger burn scar within a forest that you loved and agree that it’s good.

    Sent from my Verizon, Samsung Galaxy smartphone
    Get Outlook for Android

    • Thanks for your detailed personal account, Rob. Back then, you took calculated risks, at least, to size-up the fire and see what is needed. Weather conditions change so fast, and if you have a reasonable window of opportunity, it is worth taking the risk.

      • Thanks Larry, As you know we placed alot of trust in our experienced crew bosses. Given today’s more accurate weather forcasting as well as the use of satellite images, drones and better communication tools safety is far better.
        Certainly the crew boss at the fire site and responsible for crew safety is human who can make mistakes. My point was as simple as Murry’s just using a comparison of a fire I was on in 1977 vs. The early initial attack of the Cedar Creek Fire. I would really like to hear from anyone on the initial attack crew on the Cedar Creek Fire to hear their perspective and thoughts. I should also add that there were several small lakes and ponds near the point of ignition at Cedar Creek. Why were pumps and hose lays not dropped in when it was called a “creeping ground fire”? Inquisitive minds would like to know more.

  6. For “A” and Sharon, early months can work in the “right” locations, but early initiation in the wrong areas allow those fires to burn for long periods of time, when weather is building for uncontrollable fires. The Southwest is notorious for this, and New Mexicos disasters of last year are good examples. Also, when the do break out, it generally coincides with NPL’s increasing; a double whammy, if you will. I burned in eastern Oregon in May and early June, then we shut it down. Region 3 would not even talk about WFU in early months when I was there – snake bit, I call it.

    Just as one statement out of the blue needs explanation, so be it, if you can find any local knowledge, often mentioned in this “thread”…..

  7. Jim Z: Your comment, “For “A” and Sharon, early months can work in the “right” locations, but early initiation in the wrong areas allow those fires to burn for long periods of time, when weather is building for uncontrollable fires,” is an important one. The problem is that so many of these early season “control burns” have later gone big. I’m all for prescribed fire in the right place at the right time but feel too many have escaped in too many places. Just look at the Tamarack Fire last year. The FS publicly stated that this fire was NO THREAT to spread and do harm. A week or so later it had burned 60,000 acres and near the town of Markleville. There are many examples of this very thing. For now, I’ll go back to my main point in my initial comment, and that is that the increased use of smokejumpers could make a big difference in the problem of these big fires these days. It’s clear to me that they aren’t used because they are not seen for the highly experienced fire people they are. Jumpers could have easily jumped that Tamarack fire and put it out.

    • Often, it is the ‘decision makers’ who have wanted to see certain pieces of land burn, for a very long time. It’s too work-intensive and dangerous to use prescribed fire on such lands, and District Rangers would rather see ‘Mother Nature’ light the fire. I guess sometimes it works, and sometimes it doesn’t.

      I am in favor of banning most WFU fires, during the peak three months of fire season, for many reasons, including IA resource availability. We should never be using “unforeseen weather conditions” as an excuse for escapes of controlled burns. So often, it seems that the fire folks are more concerned with good burning conditions than safety. What is wrong with coming back on another day, if the burn wasn’t as ‘clean’ as designed?

      • Especially WFU in forests that are far removed from natural conditions, dense, and unburned for who knows how many decades.

        I think one thing we don’t talk about enough, if how federal/USFS/BLM budgets work, and how projects are paid for. You can come back another day, but at what price to a budget that congress or Region says you have to follow? All that personnel are already staged and ready to go, but do nothing…money wasted? (Maybe not too different from when they are just hanging out, working out, waiting?) And if you do come back another day, what cuts do you make elsewhere to pay for it? (Tell all the -ologists they don’t get seasonals next year?)

  8. To All, Someone in a previous comment mentioned that smokejumpers had a high rate of injuries and thus shouldn’t be used so much. I thought I put this up yesterday but don’t see it anywhere so here it is again:
    The national rate of injury for Forest Service Smokejumpers is on average around . 11% or 1 per 909 jumps . Of these 75% are minor injuries. Serious injuries are those requiring 48 or more hours in a hospital, a fracture or dislocation.

    This is NOT a high rate of injuries, it’s a VERY low rate.

  9. Too All, FYI. As I’ve mentioned before on various posts in Wildfire Today, the Rogue River-Siskiyou took up a more aggressive IA program about three years ago. You can see the article I wrote about it in Wildfire Today, in their archives. That was sometime last summer. It also appeared in Smokejumper magazine, the April 2022 issue. You can find that by going to, then search the archives there. The article is entitled: Standing Tall, Making a Difference. While the forest has admitted that much of their success was due to their particular fuels and terrain, it must be recognized that MOST of their success was due to their new initial attack policies. This is what I got from the FMO a couple days ago:

    Murry, here are the stats you asked for on our call. I would just add that we are proud of our initial attack stance that allows our firefighters to respond quickly and safely while they work hard to keep fires small.

    2020 — 39 fires for 6 acres

    2021 — 62 fires for 55

    2022 — 80 fires for 20 acres

    2023 — 22 fires for 7 acres – so far this season.

    In summary, that’s 203 fires for 90 acres.

    The RR-Siskiyou forest has shown what can be done to reduce the serious damage of these big fires. Will be interesting to see how many others get onboard. It certainly seems that the Klamath N.F. has done just that.

      • Kelly, Really? Do you consider this comment a serious one? Are you suggesting that aggressive suppression always works? Of course, it doesn’t. That doesn’t mean it’s not a good idea. Most people with any significant experience in fire know that eventually some will escape initial containment efforts and go big. It appears this was the case with this Flat fire. Let’s give credit where it’s due and not confuse the public with silly statements.

    • Don’t count your chickens before they hatch, Murry. The Rogue-Siskiyou’s Flat Fire is now at 5,500 acres with 0% containment. Any guesses on how big this one gets before an end-of-season rain/snow event? I’ll bet a six-pack of fine Southern Oregon beer that the Flat Fire blows all your statistics out of the water.

      Some simple math demonstrates that the 203 ignitions that remained small during the past 3 years prove little. Every year, 98% of national forest ignitions remain below 300 acres. Most of those ignitions would have remained small regardless of FS suppression actions, i.e., the ridge top lightning strike on top of the fuels treatment footprint of last year’s ridge top lightning strike. Or the campfire that escapes a few feet before being doused by the neighboring camper. Or the careless cigarette that ignites roadside grass, but can’t get a foothold in bigger fuels. Or the preponderance of fires east of the Mississippi where it is just too damn humid to burn with vigor.

      So the Rogue-Siskiyou had a few years with small fires. So what? If you believe that a change in a forest supervisor’s fire suppression rhetoric has anything to do with it, I’ve got a bridge for sale.

      • Andy. You know this is such a “low-informattion” comment on your part. You seem to being saying that for my statistics to have any merit, the RRSNF would have to catch all their fires from now on. EVERYONE. I interviewed both Merv George. Jr. and Dan Quinones personally and had it published in a magazine and on Wildlfire Today. Lots of fire people read it and got it. I’ve had a lot of contact with them in the last two years. What they’ve done with their upgraded and more aggressive IA program is a big improvement to what was happening before on that forest. Now, the Klamath seems to be doing the same. Your 98% comment is also a careless and confusing one. That’s a NATIONAL number and does little to address the difficulty of fires in the west. What’s happened on the RRSNF is a lot more than rhetoric, Andy. I know because, unlike you, I know these people and keep in close contact with them. I also have 33 years of fire experiece which helps me know when I’m in the company of poorly informed bullshit. Which happens to be true in your case.

        • Murry, what I’m saying is that you are inferring too much from too little data. You credit Rogue-Siskiyou supervisor Merv George’s claim of more proactive initial attack with reducing acres burned. The Rogue-Siskiyou has not changed anything on-the-ground when it comes to fire suppression. Merv’s predecessors tried to suppress every ignition; Merv has tried to suppress every ignition. Notwithstanding their best efforts, large fires have burned regularly on the Rogue-Siskiyou during periods of extended drought, which are determined by Pacific Ocean current oscillations, not by anything the Forest Service does or can do.

          Before Merv arrived on the scene, the 2017 Chetco Bar fire got some locals’ panties in a bunch; especially one county commissioner. So when Merv arrived as supervisor in 2018, he said all the politically correct things that these locals wanted to hear, i.e., “I’ll stamp out every ignition.” The only real difference between Merv and his predecessors is Merv’s rhetoric. His predecessors didn’t over-promise, even as they tried their damndest to do just as Merv is doing — stamp out every ignition ASAP.

          Good intentions and rhetoric, however, are no match for this region’s fire ecology. This region has burned in the past, it is burning now, it will burn in the future. Most ignitions will remain small; many of them would have remained small regardless of suppression effort. [Side note: In the early 20th century, before FS fire suppression, Forest Service inventory records show that most (about 70%) Northern California ignitions remained small]. Suppression may alter the outcome of a minority of ignitions, but large fires are inevitable. For Merv to promise otherwise is disingenuous; in fact, it is downright dangerous.

          Why dangerous? First, Merv’s rhetoric gives short-shrift to firefighter safety. His top-down, command-and-control management style undercuts the principle that firefighters should refuse tasks they deem unsafe. You and he may not like that principle, but is now embedded in FS firefighting culture and doctrine. If your firefighting son or daughter were ever in the position of having to make that call for themselves, I hope you’d support their choice.

          Second, his rhetoric gives a false sense of security to homeowners and communities. With Merv in charge, they might believe that fire poses no threat. Why build Firewise homes? Why clean gutters, prune trees around the house, mow the grass and clear the brush? After all, Merv promises that there’s a new sheriff in town to stamp every fire out!

          In sum, your veneration of Merv grates on those who understand the reality of fire in southwest Oregon. No, Merv’s predecessors were not pyromaniacs. Their actions were no different from Merv’s. Only their rhetoric was more responsible.

          • Andy, Well we’ll just have to disagree on all this. If you talk to Guy McMahon over in Brookings, you’ll find he thinks the fire situation has changed dramatically with Merv Goerge Jr. and Dan Quinones new approach to IA. They chose a new fire danger rating system specifically geared to this forest. They prepositioned smokejumpers immediately after lightning events. They got more rappellers, AND gave their crews the authority to go after fires on scene as they see fit. In addition to that, they’ve gone to contract–mostly Grayback–for extra IA resources during high fire periods. And, you’re wrong about this comment about the Chetco Bar fire: “Merv’s predecessors tried to suppress every ignition; . . ” That fire sat 13 days with almost no response. Rappellers were put in, they cut a helispot, then went to the fire, and said they had to leave because, “The leaves were too slick.” Yeah, now the forest is being sued for that fire. I know because the lawyer representing Brookings is a former jumper and acquaintance of mine. Thinking that fire response was better before Merv and DAn is ridiculous. Like I said, we’ll just have to disagree on this. Merv is currently on a detail to the Regional Office in Portland, a Deputy Chief, now is charge of fire in Region Six. We’ll have to wait and see what comes from that. Too bad it’s only a four-month detail. In the meantime, you might want to talk with Guy McMahon over there in Brookings.

            • Perhaps your smokejumper acquaintance, Quentin Rhoades, will enjoy better success in his Chetco Fire case. However, if past is prologue, the federal government will prevail; as it has in every previous fire-related suit for damages.

              PS: I do hope that Quentin takes to heart the court’s admonishment in his previous unsuccessful Utah fire case: “As an initial matter, the court admonishes SWUA’s counsel for blatantly twisting the government’s written policy statements to make the case that the Forest Service intended to burn non-National Forest lands.” You can find the court’s full opinion on-line at Lexis (let me know if you can’t access and I can email a copy), or read this news summary.

            • Murry, I know you’re excited about all the new IA resources Merv is employing. Perhaps his strategy will move the needle. To do so, however, he’ll have to do better than a 99% initial attack success, which is the Rogue-Siskiyou’s historic rate from 2000 to 2010, when his predecessors were in charge of these forests (source: FS data in an Excel spreadsheet available upon request). Note that the 500,000-acre Biscuit fire is included in this timeframe — it’s one of those 1% of ignitions that got away, just like today’s Flat Fire. My point is that initial attack success is not a meaningful statistic in SW Oregon when it comes to total acres burned, threats to homes and communities, and the like. The 1% that are all-but-guaranteed to escape initial attack, no matter Merv’s best efforts, are more than sufficient to burn tens, if not hundreds, of thousands of acres and provoke public consternation and fear. Let’s not deceive ourselves into thinking firefighting is going to change ecological reality.

              • Hi Andy: I am not a firefighter, but please remember that “initial attacks” were nearly 100% effective and a whole (whole) lot cheaper from 1952 until 1987 in western Oregon, when we only had one major escapement in 35 years. The problem is fuel management, not fire management, and that has been a major problem in SW Oregon since creation of the Kalmiopsis and subsequent Silver Complex Fire. The “ecological forestry” crowd has a lot of explaining to do, but so far they are able to keep skating on the “climate crisis” and short-term memories. In my opinion, based on facts.

                • Bob, I’m no firefighter either (well, I did fight fire for one summer, but that barely registers on my c.v.).

                  Growing up in western Oregon (I moved here in 1959), my recollection of that era is captured well in Ken Kesey’s “Sometimes a Great Notion,” i.e., miserably rainy and cool. In contrast, Oregon’s massive Tillamook Burns exemplified the 1930s Dust Bowl-era. No one could reasonably claim that the Tillamook fires were due to a fuels management problem. Yes, there was plenty of fuel to burn — mostly old-growth forests and logging slash. But it was drought that made those conflagrations possible.

                  In sum, I count myself in the climate camp (but not the “climate crisis” camp) when it comes to fire. For example, the Tongass NF, which has a whole LOT of wood, doesn’t burn much because its wet climate ensures the forest is perennially damp. Back in the good old days of our childhood, western Oregon was damp, too. Not so much lately.

                  • You need to get outside more, Andy. It’s still damp in western Oregon, just not during fire season — same as always. The Tillamook Fires are what caused a massive increase in fuel management — not in spite of being managed. Harvesting snags, creating firebreaks, maintaining roads, and planting trees were all based on research by OSU and ODF on how to end these events, not perpetrate them. The weather and seasons have been about the same for hundreds of years. Theoretical forestry isn’t working, and the climate has nothing to do with it. Seasonal weather remains the same.

                    • Yes, Steve. Drought + wind = big fires. Not complicated. The same formula applies to industrial tree plantations, old-growth forests, pinyon-juniper, grass, or chaparral, with the caveat that some vegetation structures (e.g., old-growth) stay moist in the face of drought better.

  10. In another part of the world… NM’s Gila NF has “monitored” with localized suppression tactics many fires this season, including earlier Pass Fire (~90k acres) and current 3 fires burning total of ~1500 acres. This, after last season’s human caused Black Fire at (~300k+). They have also aggressively suppressed many other fires so they didn’t blow. I call this intelligent work. They realize they are in a recurrent fire forest and act accordingly. Fires this year are doing good things for the land because local conditions warrant letting fire do its thing. And even 2022 Black Fire was not ALL bad.
    Can anyone honestly suggest that all these bad fire years are the result of chronic sloppy initial attack? AS CSNY noted “there’s somethin’ happenin’ here; what it is ain’t exactly clear…” Merv George (and others) should be careful of over-promising without bracketing his intentions with caveats (and perhaps he has…).


Leave a Comment

Discover more from The Smokey Wire : National Forest News and Views

Subscribe now to keep reading and get access to the full archive.

Continue reading