About Bill Gabbert

Wildland fire has been a major part of Bill Gabbert’s life for several decades. After growing up in the south, he migrated to southern California where he lived for 20 years, working as a wildland firefighter. Later he took his affinity for firefighting to Indiana and eventually the Black Hills of South Dakota where he was the Fire Management Officer for a group of seven national parks. Today he is the creator and owner of WildfireToday.com and Sagacity Wildfire Services and serves as an expert witness in wildland fire. If you are interested in wildland fire, welcome… grab a cup of coffee and put your feet up. Google+

Judge rules local agencies need approval before cutting trees on federal land

A judge has ruled that a New Mexico state law authorizing counties to cut and remove trees from federal land without approval of the federal government is unconstitutional. In a September 30 ruling, Chief U.S. District Judge Christina Armijo wrote that the law passed in 2001 by the legislature and a resolution approved by the Otero County Board of County Commissioners in 2011 violated the supremacy clause of the U.S. constitution. Armijo ruled Congress, not the state or the county, has sole authority to control federal lands.

The 2001 law stipulated that if a county declared a “disaster” as a result of the federal government’s land management actions or inactions, the county “may take such actions as are necessary to clear and thin undergrowth and to remove or log fire-damaged trees within the area of the disaster.” The tree cutting could be done after “consulting with the state forester and the regional United States forester”, but the county would not be bound by the opinion of the U.S. Forest Service.

Otero County did in fact declare a “disaster” in 2011 and developed a plan to cut and remove trees on 69,000 acres (108 square miles) of land on the Lincoln National Forest east of Alamogordo, New Mexico. They publicly announced their intentions and the U.S. Forest Service stated their opposition.

A confrontation appeared likely between federal employees and the county’s contractors attempting to cut trees on National Forest land. The possibility arose of conflicts between armed federal law enforcement officers and the county sheriff.

The Supervisor of the Lincoln National Forest, Robert Trujillo, was told by a Deputy Sheriff that Otero County Sheriff Benny House did not recognize Forest Service authority or jurisdiction, and that Sheriff House stated that he would arrest Forest Service law enforcement officers on kidnapping charges if they arrested anyone implementing Otero County’s project.

Now that the state law and the county resolution have been determined to violate federal law and the U.S. constitution, the conflict could be over. Unless — Otero County decides to cut the trees in spite of the Judge’s ruling, or they appeal the decision.

Trial begins for power company accused of starting Las Conchas Fire

Las Conchas fire photo

The Las Conchas fire as seen from the Valles Caldera National Preserve visitor center at 3:38 p.m., June 26, 2011, about two hours after the fire started northwest of Santa Fe, New Mexico. Photo: Michael Grady.

In a trial that began Thursday a power company is defending itself against charges that inadequate maintenance of their electrical line led to the 2011 Las Conchas Fire northwest of Santa Fe, New Mexico that burned 63 structures and 156,000 acres.

Below is an excerpt from an article in the Albuquerque Journal:

…Jurors must determine whether the Jemez Mountains Electric Cooperative and Tri-State Generation and Transmission should be held liable for losses sustained by the more than 300 plaintiffs, which include Jemez and Cochiti pueblos, insurance companies and business and property owners.

The blaze broke out on June 26, 2011, when an aspen tree fell onto a power line maintained by the Jemez Mountains Electric Cooperative. Plaintiffs’ attorney Tosdal said that Jemez and Tri-State, a cooperative that provides wholesale electric power to Jemez, both failed to adopt the procedures that could have prevented it.

But Al Green, the attorney representing the Jemez Mountains Electric Cooperative, said the company has a tree-trimming program in place – a procedure he said is similar to that used by most American rural electric cooperatives. He also said that Rural Utility Service audits never found violations, though a 2011 audit reported that the rights of way were in need of improvement.

“The RUS didn’t think we were violating their regulation,” he said.

Tosdal showed several photos of the aspen tree that caused the fire, pointing out conks growing at the base, which he said were an indication that the tree was unhealthy and should have been removed.

Green held that it would have been impossible for company employees walking the right of way to identify the aspen, which had a green canopy, as presenting any hazard…

Las Conchas Fire, July 14, 2011, Photo by Andrew Ashcraft

Andrew Ashcraft of the Granite Mountain Hotshots took this photo of the Las Conchas Fire July 14, 2011 while the crew was holding the fireline after the Prescott Hot Shots ignited a burnout. Two years later Mr. Ashcraft was killed on the Yarnell Hill Fire. (click to enlarge)

Articles on Wildfire Today tagged Las Conchas Fire.

Red Flag Warnings, October 2, 2015

wildfire Red Flag map 10-2-2015

The National Weather Service has issued Red Flag Warnings for areas in Arizona, New Mexico, and Colorado.

The map was current as of 9 a.m. MDT on Friday. Red Flag Warnings can change throughout the day as the National Weather Service offices around the country update and revise their forecasts and maps. For the most current data visit this NWS site or this NWS site.

The National Center for Atmospheric Research studies fire behavior

Janice Coen at the National Center for Atmospheric Research is studying how weather and fire interact in order to develop a wildfire prediction system to forecast fire behavior.

Articles at Wildfire Today tagged “Janice Coen” about the fire behavior research she is conducting.

Wildfire potential through January, 2016

The Predictive Services section at the National Interagency Fire Center issued their Wildland Fire Potential Outlook through January, 2016. The data represents the cumulative forecasts of the ten Geographic Area Predictive Services Units and the National Predictive Services Unit.

If their forecasts are accurate, the only areas with above normal wildfire potential during that period will be in California and Minnesota.

Here are the highlights from their outlook.


wildfire potential October 2015

  • Significant fire potential has reduced to normal fall conditions across most of the areas where fire activity concerns were prevalent through September.
  • Above normal significant fire potential will continue across central and southern California due to continued drought and dry fuels. Central portions of the state will return to normal by the end of the month.
  • Northwestern Minnesota will see short term elevated significant fire potential through October.
  • Portions of the Mississippi and Ohio Valleys, Puerto Rico and the Hawaiian Islands will see below normal conditions.
  • Elsewhere normal fall conditions will prevail.


wildfire potential November , 2015

  • The remainder of the above normal potential will return to normal by the end of November in California.
  • Portions of the Southeastern U.S., Hawaiian Islands and Puerto Rico will continue to see below normal potential.
  • Normal conditions are expected elsewhere.

December, 2015 and January, 2016

wildfire potential December January

  • Portions of the Southeastern U.S., Hawaiian Islands and Puerto Rico will continue to see below normal potential.
  • Normal conditions are expected elsewhere.

(end of Fire Potential report)


Below is the Drought Monitor analysis

Drought Monitor

Precipitation, departure from normal

The map below shows the how the amount of precipitation recorded during September, 2015 departed from normal for that period.

Precip, departure from normal

A further look into the landowner/firefighter disagreement in Idaho

Teepee Springs Fire, 8-29-2015

Tepee Springs Fire, 8-29-2015, as seen from Island Bar. InciWeb photo.

The disagreement between an Idaho landowner and firefighters is drawing more attention. Rocky Barker, a reporter for the Idaho Statesman with a long history of writing about wildland fire, posted an article on the newspaper’s website today.

As we wrote on September 27, the owners of private property affected by the Tepee Springs Fire east of Riggins, Idaho were not pleased with the tactics and strategy being employed on the fire or their interactions with the Incident Management Team fighting the fire.

But some of the firefighters felt threatened by the land owners. According to a report filed on SAFENET,  “Two of the land owners verbally accosted a BLM employee while armed with a weapon.”

The unidentified author of the SAFENET report also wrote, “…the land owners took it upon themselves to attempt a burnout and began igniting fire below crews without any communication or warning. Crews had to be pulled to safe areas….The land owners made multiple unsafe demands to fire fighters such as downhill line construction in extremely rugged terrain with fire below them, attempting burnouts on mid-slope dozer lines with no escape routes or safety zones, and to drop water from helicopters with personnel in the work zone (the land owners).”

Law enforcement officers had to be called more than once and two hot shot crews refused an assignment ordered by the incident commander due to what they thought were unsafe conditions caused by the actions of the landowners.

In Mr. Barker’s article he writes that the author of the very lengthy comment on our September 27 article left by “Landowner” was in fact Brad and Sarah Walters, the son and daughter-in-law of the owners of the Mountain View Elk Ranch on the West Fork of Lake Creek, three miles east of Riggins.

On their 1,200 acres the landowners raise elk which they allow their clients to shoot, charging $5,900 to $14,000 per animal depending on the size of the rack. Shooting a buffalo costs from $4,000 to $7,500. This kind of canned hunting of domestic animals is outlawed in Wyoming and Montana according to a 2006 article at KOMO news that featured the Walters’ ranch.

The video below is basically an audio recording of a phone conversation. It was posted on September 7 by Sarah Walters, and is described as a “conversation with Mark Giacoletto IC of the Tepee Springs Fire on 9-7-2014 at 1:30.”

3-D map Teepee Springs Fire

3-D map of the Tepee Springs Fire, in the general area of the private property involved in the disagreement. Perimeter, in red, as of 9-25-2015, looking north. Click to enlarge.

Our take on the situation

All of the facts have not yet been ferreted out, but after reading what is available about this incident, here is how it appears to us. Admittedly, this is from the view of someone who was a full time wildland firefighter for 33 years, but is trying to understand both sides of what could be categorized, at this stage, as a he-said, she-said situation.

The Walters obviously wanted to protect their property which generates income from people being charged to shoot the elk they raise on their property. They probably felt that if any of the land burned it would diminish the esthetic appeal, appearance, grazing, the number of shooters they hosted, and water quality. By insisting on aggressive fire suppression tactics they may have thought that if there were any safety concerns by employing those tactics, that it was worth the risk to the firefighters. They apparently thought that there was a strong possibility that the fire would continue to spread significantly and burn their property.

The firefighters may have analyzed the fire conditions, the weather forecast, and the predicted fire behavior and decided that with the weather and the time of the year, there was little chance that the fire in that area would burn additional acres on the property. They may have also been concerned about the safety of the firefighters on the ground and in the air if they had to be committed to additional aggressive suppression activities in the rugged terrain. Mr. Barker reported that Sarah Walters was a firefighter for five years, but her expertise about fire behavior and appropriate firefighting tactics would pale in comparison to the knowledge, training, and experience available within the Type 1 Incident Management Team assigned to the fire.