Climbing trees to harvest pine cones after the Wallow Fire in Arizona

Wallow Fire

Engine crew works on the Wallow Fire in 2011. Photo by Jayson Coil.

On a recent October day south and west of Alpine, AZ, James Nesslage and Brandon Billy were harvesting a bumper crop of cones from the top branches of a 100-foot tall ponderosa pine. That tree and others like it are survivors of the 538,049-acre Wallow Fire that burned in eastern Arizona and western New Mexico in 2011, most of it within the Apache-Sitgreaves National Forest. The cones being picked will yield the seeds needed to continue the restoration of parts of that vast burn.

picking pine cones

James Nesslage climbs a rope rigged in a 100-foot ponderosa pine tree as as he and his crew prepare to harvest seed cones on the Apache-Sitgreaves National Forest southwest of Alpine, AZ. Photo by Tom Story.

Plans to restore the forest began before the Wallow Fire was contained. Initial estimates were that high burn severity over much of the fire area would result in natural regeneration being hampered by a lack of available seed trees.

To have the best chance of survival, seedlings must be grown from cones taken from parent trees in the area. Patrick Murphy, silviculturist on the Apache-Sitgreaves, explained:

Several factors are used in determining where cones are harvested and from which trees seed is collected.  The forest has pre-established “seed zones”.  These seed zones are geographic locations found throughout the forest.  In collecting seed we take into consideration if the parent tree is free from insects, disease, defects, deformity, or forking.  The tree should also exhibit superior height and diameter growth.  We will plant seedlings in the same seed zone and elevation band where the parent tree is located.

Earlier in the year, there was a larger crew of 20 people harvesting the seed cones. Now as the cone picking season, which began in mid-August, was winding down, there were only two other people; father and son Randy and Brandon James, working that day.  It would take two to three hours for each team to completely strip the tree of its cones. “The contract specifies eighty-percent (of the cones on each tree)” said Mr. Nesslage, “but we try to do better than that”. The pine that the James duo picked that morning barely produced a bushel of good cones while the tree that Mr. Nesslage and Mr. Billy harvested yielded over three bushels.

picking pine cones

Brandon Billy works his way out on a limb as James Nesslage (mostly hidden at right) uses a hook to pull the cone laden tip of a limb close to Mr. Billy during the seed cone harvest. Photo by Tom Story.

A general contractor in the construction business, Mr. Nesslage came across a solicitation for a seed cone harvesting contract on the Federal Business Opportunities website and thought it was a chance to put some of his climbing experience to good use. “Go camping, climb trees and get paid for it! Sweet!” was his reaction. He was awarded a contract and started picking in 2012.  He admitted that the learning curve was a little steep at first but was able to complete the harvest. The cone crop in 2013 was poor and was not picked, so when Mr. Nesslage’s teams returned to the woods this year, not only was there more to harvest, they had a larger crew and more knowledge of how to do the job better and more efficiently.

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Ironwood Hotshots disbanded

northwest fire districtOne of the two Interagency Hotshot Crews not run by a state or federal agency has been disbanded. The Ironwood Interagency Hotshot Crew (IHC), formed by the Northwest Fire District near Tucson, Arizona, was shut down October 3.

In 2008 the District’s Type 2 Initial Attack crew became a trainee Type 1 crew, and achieved Type 1 status in late 2009 with Greg Smith as the Superintendent. Between 2008 and 2014 they responded to 118 fires for a total of 924 days — an average of 103 days a year.

Now that the Ironwood Hotshots are gone, that leaves 114 IHCs in the United States, with 109 being federal (USFS, BLM, BIA, and NPS), 4 run by states (Utah and Alaska), and 1 County crew (Kern County in southern California). The official list of Hotshot crews on the U.S. Forest Service website shows the Sierra Hotshots as being a “county” crew, but that is incorrect — they are part of the Sierra National Forest, but the Rio Bravo crew listed as USFS is actually a Kern County Crew

The Granite Mountain Hotshots were a city-based crew with the Prescott Fire Department in Arizona. We checked today with spokesperson for the city Catherine Sebold, who said the city “has not made a firm decision” about rebuilding the crew after 19 of the 20 Granite Mountain crew members were killed on the Yarnell Hill Fire June 30, 2013.

The Northwest Fire District first announced on March 4, 2014 that the crew would be disbanded. A petition at that encouraged the retention of the crew cited fear of lawsuits, such as those filed against the City of Prescott following their disaster last year.

On March 5, 2013 we talked to David Gephart, the District’s Finance Director, who told us the crew was being disbanded for “financial and operational” reasons. He said one of the operational considerations was that the District had some vacant structural firefighting positions it needed to fill, and the seven permanent members of the crew will be offered those positions. Four of those seven have already been through the structural fire academy, while three have not but will be scheduled to receive the training.

When a firefighting resource, such as a hotshot crew or fire engine from one agency helps to suppress a fire in another jurisdiction for an extended period of time, formal agreements usually stipulate that the lending agency is financially reimbursed for their expenses. The reimbursement amount is based on the crewperson hours worked. That rate is almost three times the actual hourly rate the District pays the firefighters, in order to cover other expenses related to the fire assignment. For example, the Prescott Fire Department was reimbursed for 95.5 percent of the total expenses of operating the Granite Mountain Hotshots in the 2012 fiscal year, according to an article in The Daily Courier.

Mr. Gephart provided figures for the fiscal years 2011 through 2013 showing that the operational expenses for the Ironwood Hotshots for that three year period were $7.3 million. They were reimbursed for $7.2 million, or, 98.6 percent of their costs.

We asked if the 200 other firefighters that the District employs were expected to generate their own funding, and Mr. Gephart said they were not.

He pointed out that there are other costs for maintaining the Hotshot crew that are are not included above which are more difficult to put on a spread sheet, including overhead, indirect, capital needs, and IT expenses.

Since the crew came within about one percent of being self-supporting, we asked why the Hotshots were created in the first place. Mr. Gephart said they expected the crew to make money for the District, or in a worst case, break even. He went on to say future costs would have a negative effect on the crew’s financial situation, such as a new requirement that the 13 seasonal firefighters have health insurance, and increases in the cost of pensions.

In a press release the Fire District  said the disbanding of the Ironwood Hotshots was not a reaction to the tragic Yarnell Hill Fire:

[The District was] in contact with the District’s insurance carrier. This was done as part of the District’s due diligence to ensure we are appropriately protected as an organization and were planning appropriately for any potential rate adjustments that could be attributed to the ongoing Yarnell ligation and our continued support of a Type I Hotshot Crew. Essentially, we were concerned that our insurance rates might increase just for having a Hotshot Crew. However, we learned there would be no additional insurance costs projected for this year.

About the petition at, the District’s press release said it contained “numerous inaccuracies”, without being specific about what they were.

This article was edited after a second error was found on the USFS’ list of Hotshot Crews.


“Wildfire”, by Mary Lowry

Wildfire book by Mary P. Lowry

Mary P. Lowry, author of “Wildfire: a novel”.

We ran across this photo on Twitter that was apparently taken at a presentation by Mary Pauline Lowry about her new book, Wildfire: a novel. Seeing that it is due to be released on October 7, we found the author’s web site and were impressed by the blurbs about the book written by some well known authors, including Anthony Swofford (Jarhead), James C. Moore (Bush’s Brain), and the less well known but bearer of fire credentials, Murry A. Taylor (Jumping Fire).

Then we looked at Ms. Lowry’s bio and found that she worked for two seasons on the Pike Hotshots in Colorado.

Here is how the book is described at Amazon:

Julie has an obsession with fire that began after her parents died when she was twelve years old. Her pyromania leads her to take an unlikely job as a forest firefighter on an elite, Type 1 “Hotshot” crew of forest firefighters who travel the American West battling wildfires. The only woman on the twenty person crew, Julie struggles both to prove her worth and find a place of belonging in the dangerous, insular, and very masculine world of fire. As her season “on the line” progresses so do her relationships with the strange and varied cast of characters that make up her hotshots team—and she learns what it means to put your life on the line for someone else.

Wildfire is a tough, gritty, and fascinating story from an exciting new voice in American fiction. Fans of the movie Backdraft or Cheryl Strayed’s memoir Wild will enjoy this fast paced debut.

We were intrigued, and not only pre-ordered the book, but placed it in the Wildfire Today store at Amazon.


Inspector General finds some BLM wildfire funds inappropriately managed

In a review of the handling and expenditure of Bureau of Land Management wildland fire funds, the Department of Interior’s Inspector General’s (IG) office found dozens of instances of the funds being used inappropriately in managing purchase cards (used like credit cards) and payroll. Many of the examples are not serious in the eyes of an outsider, such as charging firefighters’ overtime to the wrong fire, but if reimbursement is going to be sought for the suppression costs of a particular fire, errors such as those could be problematic.

The IG examined records of BLM offices in Utah, Idaho, Montana, and Utah. Some of the irregularities they found were far more serious than charging payroll to the wrong fire. Their report listed examples, such as finding $799,000 in gift card purchases, with approximately $70,000 of those charges coming from a Government purchase card in the Idaho State Office. Government cards had been used to purchase gift cards from vendors such as REI, American Express, FredMeyer, and Visa. When the investigator requested supporting documentation for the expenses, the BLM staff could not locate the purchase card statements, which were said to be missing. In December 2012, a BLM employee pled guilty to using her Government purchase card to buy electronic equipment and gift cards for personal use.

The IG found purchase card charges inappropriately applied to the fire suppression line of accounting instead of fire preparedness. This distorts both the basic operating budget for fire units and the costs associated with specific fire incidents. For example, in the Southern Nevada District, charges had been applied to fire suppression accounts for such items as pest control services, an atlas, and a chainsaw purchased before the fire started. In addition, in the Carson City District, charges for janitorial services amounting to $3,200 had been charged to fire suppression against multiple fires in another State.

In response to the report, the BLM indicated that it “has undertaken an unprecedented, high-priority effort to improve the business management of its fire program.”

Thanks and a tip of the hat go out to Dick.


Update on the legality of exploding targets

Regular readers of Wildfire Today know that we have been covering the use and the prohibition of exploding targets. The devices have become popular in the last three years with shooters who get a thrill from seeing the explosion when their bullet hits its mark. We have documented numerous wildfires that have been started by exploding targets. Sometimes called “binary exploding targets”, they are completely inert until two powders are mixed by the shooter. After the ingredients are combined, the compound is illegal to transport and is classified as an explosive by the Bureau of Alcohol, Tobacco, Firearms, and Explosives and is subject to the regulatory requirements in 27 CFR, Part 555.

An example of one fire was the Ten-Mile Fire in Idaho in July, 2012. It was started by a property owner who was shooting an exploding target on his land. The target ignited a fire that threatened at least two homes and burned 440 acres of federal land. The owner agreed to pay $168,500 to cover taxpayer costs of suppressing the fire.

Not only can they start fires, but exploding targets can cause death and injuries. In 2013 a man in Minnesota was killed when shrapnel from the device struck 47-year-old Jeffery Taylor in the abdomen causing him to collapse. He was declared dead before he could be transported to a hospital in a helicopter.

About two years ago Jennifer Plank Greer was struck by shrapnel while she was taking cell phone video of someone who shot at the explosive which was inside a refrigerator. Her hand was blown almost completely off, left hanging only by a portion of skin. Through 16 surgical procedures doctors reattached the hand, but she no longer has the use of her fingers, except for being able to wiggle her thumb.

On October 7, 2012 in Pennsylvania two state Game Commission workers suffered injuries including burns, temporary blindness and hearing damage when an illegal exploding target blew up while the men attempted to put out a fire at a gun range in Pike County.

In an article published August 20, 2014, titled “7 ways children can have fun at the shooting range”, the NRA lists exploding targets as number seven, saying about the devices:

These are on the top of the “fun” list. The resounding “BOOM” and puff of smoke is fun to see, hear and smell. We shot some with a couple of LG’s teammates and had a BLAST…Exploding targets can be quite expensive, and you do need to be extra careful.

Much of the land in the United States where target shooters wish to use exploding targets is administered by the U.S. Forest Service.

National Forests map

U.S. Forest Service system lands. USFS map.

In July, Larry Chambers, National Press Officer for the U.S. Forest Service, was quoted in the Spokesman Review:

The Forest Service is working to clarify and better define existing regulations that impact the use of exploding targets on national forest system lands,” said Larry Chambers, Forest Service media relations officer in Washington, D.C. ”Our current focus is on educating the public.” It might be several weeks before agency officials react on a national basis, he said.

Today Mr. Chambers told us there is still no nationwide USFS policy:

There is no national exploding target prohibition by the Forest Service, and the agency fully recognizes hunting and safe target shooting as a valid use of National Forest System lands. The prohibition of exploding targets on some National Forest System lands is not intended to adversely affect the sport of target shooting.

Mr. Chambers said exploding targets are prohibited on National Forest Systems (NFS) lands in most of the western states, in USFS regions 1, 2, 4, and 6 (see the map below). They have also been banned on NFS lands in Texas and Oklahoma, but we are checking to determine if the prohibitions in those two states are still in effect. California is not included, he said, because they are banned statewide by state law. Some national Forests in Regions 8, 9, and 10 may have local special orders that prohibit the used of exploding targets, Mr. Chamber said.

Some of the regional bans are only temporary, and expire in 2015.

US Forest Service regions map

U. S. Forest Service Region numbers. USFS map.

Other exploding target prohibitions:

  • On April 20, 2014 the Bureau of Land Management issued a ban on exploding targets on BLM lands within the state of Idaho, to be effective between May 10 and October 20, 2014.
  • Under a new Maryland law passed after heavy lobbying by state fire investigators, the devices can no longer be purchased, used or carried in Maryland by anyone without an explosives license.
  • Idaho state law prohibits use of exploding targets, tracer ammunition and other fire-causing materials on state range and forest lands during the “closed fire season,” which generally runs May 10 to Oct. 20.
  • In Washington and Oregon the BLM bans exploding targets from spring through fall during the wildfire season.
  • A state law in Washington bans exploding targets and tracer ammunition year-round on state-managed lands.
  • A new law in Oregon took effect this year that bans exploding targets and tracer ammunition on state-protected lands during fire season.