“Revolt in the Firefighting Community?” Hype or Reality?

Scott Lindgren Tahoe-Douglas Fire Chief and head of the Northern Nevada Fire Chiefs Association

I certainly don’t know, but some folks sent me links to this article in the Nevada Globe with that title. It’s by a reporter named Dana Tibbitts who has also written a three part series called “license to burn: wildfire as the ultimate public-private partnership.”

Now we know that different folks here have views on all sides of this issue here at TSW so this may lead to a good discussion.

Indeed, the Chief’s “Burn Back Better” letter has caused a firestorm among firefighters and Forest Service veterans nationwide.

“We ain’t seen nothing yet,” said one fire veteran in response to the letter. “The USFS is doubling down. The Chief’s claim of a ‘historic achievement of 4.3 million acres of restoration’ prioritizes rampant ‘Wildfire Use’ over a strong ‘Initial Attack’ to put the fire out from the get-go. It’s also a misappropriation of congressionally appropriated funds allocated to the agency for emergency fire suppression.” 

Last year was a reprieve,” National Wildfire Institute (NWI) sources say. “Forest maintenance is down, so acres burned will likely increase. It’s only May 22, and about two million acres have already burned. Look for about eight million acres to burn in the 2024 fire season as a strong ‘Initial Attack’ policy gives way to a ‘managed’ or ‘beneficial’ fire. If history is a guide, the West will bear the brunt.”

I couldn’t find out much about the National Wildfire Institute via Google searching. I know TSWites know more about this group, so hopefully you will provide links below.

The colossal fiascoes of the Caldor, Tamarack, and Dixie fires of 2021 are case in point. These fires were allowed to run for months, consuming almost 1.3 million acres of Sierra Nevada forest. The costs of Caldor Fire damages alone ran in the billions of dollars, not including trees and wildlife lost, or damages to 1,200 residents displaced from their homes.

Burning an average of more than six million acres a year over the last decade is now a standing order for the USFS, not only in California but across the nation. The wholesale use of “managed” or “prescribed” fire under the guise of firefighter safety, forest health, and resilience and restoration, is scarring landscapes, devastating forests, and leaving vast lifeless ecosystems with few signs of recovery.

This sounds more like an op-ed than reporting- but then that’s fairly common today.  Anyway, here’s a local fire chief with concerns:

Tahoe-Douglas Fire Chief and head of the Northern Nevada Fire Chiefs Association, Scott Lindgren said, “The latest forecast and guidance from the Chief is so unhinged from firefighting realities on the ground as to defy rational analysis or practical guidance.”

Fire Chief Scott Lindgren (Photo: Tahoe Douglas Fire Protection District)

USFS Regional Foresters are deploying a new policy, calling for all fires in the Tahoe Basin to be risk-assessed and monitored by USFS Regional Foresters, who alone would determine the appropriate response to new fire ignitions.

Lindgren rejects the idea. “It’s a non-starter. If a fire in the Basin threatens my jurisdiction or community, we’re not going to wait around. We’ll hit every fire hard and direct with everything we’ve got. Managed fire is not an option. Look at Caldor and Tamarack. We need to put fires out immediately.”

“The USFS decision to allow these fires to burn is criminal,” Lindgren added. “I’m very disturbed that, by allowing these fires to burn like they did in the Tamarack Fire, they get to count those acres as ‘treated.’ These are not treated acres—they are destroyed acres!”

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When Fire Chief Lindgren testified before the House Committee on Natural Resources in 2022, he raised concerns about Chief Moore’s LOI continuing to advocate the catastrophic burn policy, even after the Caldor and Tamarack fire debacles.

“Many local fire chiefs were very upset,” Lindgren testified. “So, we wrote our own letter of intent, which we believe reflects the public’s expectations and demands of us.” Over 30 chiefs in California and Nevada sign the letter annually.

“We will aggressively attack all fires within or threatening our jurisdictions. We will hit them as fast and hard as possible when they are small. In these unprecedented conditions, we can’t afford the risk to our public, our communities, the environment, the wildlife, critical infrastructure, or our firefighters by letting these fires grow out of control. We will use every available resource and tool to keep this from happening…We will find a way to get ahead of it and stop it at all costs,” Lindgren stated.

“Why can’t the USFS take a similar stance?” Lindgren asked. “Burn Back Better isn’t working.”

The Biden-Harris administration’s plan to Burn Back Better, detailed in Confronting the Wildfire Crisis, lays out a 10-year plan to treat (code for burn) 20 million acres of National Forest System lands, 30 million acres of other Federal, State, Tribal, and private lands, and an additional 10-million-acre targeted burn. That’s a whopping 60 million acres of unauthorized, ill-conceived, unilateral burn treatments for America’s forests, rangelands, and Wildland Urban Interface communities—all in the name of so-called science, resilience and restoration.

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My understanding is that the treatments in the plan include prescribed fire, mechanical treatments, and managed fire.. does anyone know if those categories are broken out in reporting?  Last time I had to dig out the managed fire from a budget statement.

I followed the link to Lindgren’s testimony..and here he is on pay and benefits:

There has been some great work done on State and private land in the Basin. But work on the USFS land is inconsistent and sloppy. This is not the fault of the USFS Lake Tahoe Basin Management Unit, but more so due to lake of funding and lack of staffing. The pay and benefits for the USFS are incredibly deficient and frankly embarrassing. They have massive trouble recruiting and retaining employees. The good employees that they do have are very dedicated, but can only do so much. I have heard the promises in this year’s budget
to fix their pay and benefits, but from what I have recently heard from some of their employees, they have not seen any change. Why? They deserve to be paid what the state and local
government fire departments make. Until the pay and benefits are fixed, you won’t fix the problem. I urge you to fix their pay and benefits ASAP.

Of course, Lindgren’s testimony was in 2022; I haven’t been keeping track of whether pay and benefits (and housing) have been fixed or  not.

22 thoughts on ““Revolt in the Firefighting Community?” Hype or Reality?”

  1. Just like I have said, many times. We should never allow agencies to claim “Wildfire Acres Burned” as an accomplishment. Letting fires burn, here in California, rarely produces the kind of “natural fire” characteristics that some people want. After over 30 years of limited thinning projects, there are still old growth stands that are being incinerated (including fire resistant giant sequoias and yellow pines). It is very sad that some people aren’t worried about the loss of such national treasures.

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  2. There is a notion, that the Forest Service is purposely underfunded, so they can not accomplish the job! Only under President Regan was the ‘Let it Burn ‘ policy temporarily reversed! Apparently the management is corrupted by outside interests

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  3. I believe the National Wildfire Institute has some affiliation with Frank Carroll, a long-time fire professional who has consistently argued against wildland fire use, and who is an important source for the article. TSW readers can get a bit more info on him by searching on his name on the TSW site (I’m on my phone and can’t easily paste the link).

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  4. Sharon! You sound like Facebook and Hunter Biden’s computer.

    Are folks on the Wire unable to handle the unedited text of the article? They need a gatekeeper?

    Please publish the piece as written.

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    • Frank.. this reminds me of life in the FS- when we were both working in Region 2- darned if you do, and darned if you don’t. There is a doctrine of fair use, that seems to mean that it is only OK to excerpt things.. which I have on occasionally bent a bit when the article is paywalled. I’ve been contacted to take posts down when they excerpt too much.
      But this one isn’t paywalled. So I provided a link. We can together discuss anything on the original piece.

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  5. This reflects what a lot of the public think. I can’t respond don’t know the facts. USFS should have an active PR program to address these issues nationwide. I am a/strong supporter of initial attack as well as to let burn however there must be strict guidelines on when you do them. We should not be going into the heart of fire season with uncontrolled fires

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    • ” I am a/strong supporter of initial attack as well as to let burn however there must be strict guidelines on when you do them. We should not be going into the heart of fire season with uncontrolled fires”

      I, too, have also been saying that for many, many years. We need a ban on let burn fires in the west, during the peak of the fire season. This is important, as scarce fire suppression resources should not be diminished with corralling fires that should have been directly attacked.

      Sure, safety issues are still in play, and some fires will be too active for full direct suppression. The reality is that we should not be expecting that a few years of preventative actions will have a lot of effect on unhealthy and overstocked forests. Add in the limitations on Wilderness fires, and we see the serious problems before us. Some forests just won’t survive the inevitable firestorms ahead of us. However, we need to try to do ‘something’, instead of ensuring tragic outcomes that will come with “Fire Use” (or whatever you want to call it).

      Eastern Forests can keep doing what they are doing but, fire season in the west is not the time for allowing fires to burn, on purpose.

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  6. There is a major difficulty with finding the right balance between allowing natural wildfire to burn when safe to do so, and expanding wildfires as a big resource management operation. And it is complicated by the fact that sometimes USFS expanded wildfire may have ecosystem benefit, such as I hear occurred during the greatly expanded Pass Fire in New Mexico’s Gila NF and Wilderness a few years back.

    Despite adamantly disagreeing with the USFS actions re the Black Fire, I hear in many areas the fire burned at low to moderate severity and was stimulative. Some high severity fire in patches can be OK too. However, there was also substantial damage to wildlife habitat and infrastructure. While USFS expanded fires through firing operations during wildfire management can at times be possibly ecologically beneficial, such wildfire expansions are implemented without sufficient advanced planning or buy-in from the public, and therefore pose risks that are not sufficiently considered and mitigated. Also, there doesn’t seem to be any consideration of the cumulative impacts of so much burning in a warming and drying climate. To me that is the main point, there is an assumption that wildfire will have the same effects now that it had 20 years ago, and the appears likely to not be the case. Wildfires seem to be causing type conversion in many areas now. We don’t know how much fire is beneficial on landscapes now, maybe it’s less in the warming climate.

    To be literally going on a burning spree with firing operations that greatly expand wildfire at this point, with no NEPA process or advance planning, is reckless and even nihilistic.

    And unfortunately, I do not believe the FS has the capability of expanding prescribed burn use without causing more wildfires, at least in dry forests and climates. Greatly increasing burning with less safer burn windows and less trained personnel to implement the burns or deal with fire escapes, does not add up to increased prescribed burn safety.

    I believe it’s inevitable that the FS will be responsible for another intentional fire escape in New Mexico, and likely fairly soon. It could be a wildfire expansion escape, though, and it could wind up being blamed on the wildfire itself. Wildfires should not be expanded during fire season.

    I think there is an emergency need for a national discussion on these issues, leading to a revised national wildfire policy developed within a NEPA process. And we need to change incentives from burning as many acres as possible, to understanding that we don’t even yet understand the changing times we are in regard to fire in our forests, and the best approach is a conservative one.

    For now, I believe the USFS should generally just stop the burning altogether except for fire suppression……until a reasonable policy is developed, appropriate for current conditions.

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  7. “The Biden-Harris administration’s plan to Burn Back Better, detailed in Confronting the Wildfire Crisis, lays out a 10-year plan to treat (code for burn) 20 million acres of National Forest System lands, 30 million acres of other Federal, State, Tribal, and private lands, and an additional 10-million-acre targeted burn. That’s a whopping 60 million acres of unauthorized, ill-conceived, unilateral burn treatments for America’s forests, rangelands, and Wildland Urban Interface communities—all in the name of so-called science, resilience and restoration.”

    I question two things here. “Treat” is more often seen as code for “log,” so the 60 million acres can’t be just the amount of burning. Also, there is plenty of burning that is “in the name of” protecting human infrastructure, so it can’t “all” be in the name of ecology. This makes me a little skeptical of the rest of it.

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  8. Once again, in response to some of the comments, I will argue that global full fire suppression always edicts are not the answer and the current state of western forests, in general, proves that. It hasn’t worked. I can’t speak to the situation on the West Coast, but the Rio Grande National Forest has been conducting successful managed fires for well over a decade. Next door, the San Juan NF is completing their second successful managed fire this year as I write this. Well thought out fire plans and skilled staff are necessary to make it work. I think two of the biggest challenges with consistently managing fires successfully is pressure from higher levels to burn as many acres as possible (or meet prescribed fire acres targets) and experienced personnel – both line officers and on the ground. And by experience personnel, I mean having people on staff that know and understand the land and weather patterns of the area.

    I also can’t agree with a no managed fires during fire season edict. I think it would be better to look at the National Preparedness Level and wildfire forecasts to help determine whether a forest should move forward with managing a fire.

    Every situation is different and line officers need to have flexibility to manage fires that check all the boxes for successful implementation. Line officers also need to know when to say no, and fully suppress fires.

    All that said, I fully understand the hesitancy of many people to embrace managed fires. There have been some major screw ups. But why should forests that have proven track records of successfully managing fires be denied that management tool due to mistakes made in other places? And on the flip side, forests that don’t have strong fire management plans and skilled, knowledgeable line officers and staff, shouldn’t be pressured to managed fires.

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    • Beeing fire people I’m sure they have some kind of formal documented decision-making process with a multi-letter acronym that takes many things into account. There’s probably a good description of the process out there somewhere.. anyone?

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      • Haha, I don’t know the acronym, but the RGNF has a multi-page checklist they go through. And the fire plan delineates areas where managed fire is appropriate. I wasn’t a planner or a fire person – although I have certainly worked on my share of fires – but, I seem to remember the fire plan was somehow incorporated into the new forest plan. Now that I think about it, I believe WFDSS (Wildland Fire Decision Support System) is used as part of the decision making process.

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      • I wish that were true Sharon. I see no reason to think there is an elaborate mechanism for assessing and mitigating anything. Once that fire gets off the ground, they have no capacity to bring it back. heartbreaking stories, and Caldor residents watching FS workforce standing around their trucks on the highway “having a frat party”, all the heavy equipment never coming off the trucks. Maybe that’s just Caldor. But people had to watch the burn piles around their houses take them down in flames. Not a lot of finesse, or tiered and incremental assessment going on there. Zero meaningful management. Just an observer. Appreciate all the fine input and reflection. This is a time to reflect and then act before the west is on fire again – which it already is. Prayers for New Mexico.

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  9. The Park Service and BLM burn successfully in New Mexico all the time so holding the FS up to some imaginary standard is intellectual dishonesty that defies rational reasoning and even looks like a vendetta.

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    • I do not know what imaginary standard you speak of, other than to not burn 14X as many acres from escaped prescribed burns than are burned by all other causes (in the SFNF in the past decade). And that includes burning out entire communities and leaving people out of their homes to this day. If that is an imaginary standard, let’s make it happen anyway.

      https://www.theforestadvocate.org/santa-fe-national-forest-fire-history/?utm_campaign=October+13,+2023+Forest+Update&utm_medium=email&utm_source=mailpoet

      BTW, it is relevant to look at what has occurred in the past decade in one forest, as well as at other levels of data. However, there have been several other prescribed burn escapes in New Mexico in recent decades, just not as spectacular as the three prescribed burn escapes in the SFNF of 2022. It is more important to look at numbers of acres burned than to look at number of incidences. And even, in regard to incidences, if the USFS manages to keep the majority of prescribed burns from escaping, that is not good enough. The consequences of prescribed burn escapes can be too high. To me, to expect not to have one agency burn 387,000 acres in one year in three separate prescribed burn escapes in one forest is not asking too much. What happened in the SFNF is likely to occur in other forests as prescribed burns get even more difficult to implement due to hot and dry conditions.

      What the escapes indicate is that at least in dry forests, prescribed burns have become much riskier as the climate warms. So a new strategy needs to be developed. The strategy needs to go beyond checking the drought monitor to see if there is an exceptional drought the day the burn is lit, or even the use of infrared cameras to check for hot spots in burn piles. Those help, but they are very limited and do not detect heat deep in piles, or in the ground. The Calf Canyon burn piles were checked by aerial infrared surveillance after they were known to be spreading, and then considered put out, and yet the fire “re-ignited.” It didn’t re-ignite, it was never out and burning embers were whipped up by the April New Mexico winds.

      The escapes also indicate that the USFS is attempting to burn more acreage than they have the agency capacity to safely implement. This is clear from the Chief’s Review of the Las Dispensas Prescribed Burn, and the National Prescribed Fire Program Review. The Review discusses various ways the Forest Service could increase agency capacity, but it may not be possible with the general lack of highly trained professionals entering the Forest Service and the general lack of manpower in most fields. And yet the USFS plans to increase prescribed burn up to 4X 2022 levels. Does not add up. A revised strategy may include less burning than has been done in the recent past, not more. It may be time to consider that longer fire rotations are more appropriate during times of warming climate. And it is certainly safer to implement smaller burns instead of very large ones.

      So it is not imaginative to ask that there be a revised national wildfire policy and to do better, much better. It’s only logical and reasonable. Also, since times are changing due to the warming climate, one cannot assume that what has worked in the past will work sufficiently now.

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      • Just adding, from the NAFSR BOD meeting presentation by Jaelith Hall Rivera and Mark Lichtenstein
        “We have added 4,000 new employees to the non-fire workforce. This was the Chief’s goal.
        There was never a goal to return to previous staffing.
        • 50% of our current employees have less than 5 years of FS experience” Hopefully the ratio is higher in the wildfire/prescribed fire/fuels jobs.

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  10. Aspen and beaver need fire to preserve watershed resilience on the Santa Fe National Forest or on any public property in the Mountain West and without fire that effort is improbable.

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