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 Change.org 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 change.org, 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.

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A grass roots effort begins to increase the number of women in fire

Women in Fire Bootcamp

The twelve participants of the Phoenix 2014 Women in Fire Bootcamp pose for a group shot during the Women in Fire Bootcamp Field Day September 13th, 2014. Photo by Tom Story.

The representation of women in the wildland fire business is currently somewhere around 10%, but some women have set out to increase that number.  One of their methods that seems to be working is the Women in Fire Bootcamp that took place in Albuquerque and Phoenix over two weekends in September as part of a Forest Service outreach program in Region Three (Arizona and New Mexico).

Founder Bequi Livingston of the Forest Service’s Regional Office in Albuquerque describes the origins in an email: “about ten years ago, I started talking the idea of a “Wildland Firefighter Boot Camp” here in the Region and there was not much interest at the time. As we continued struggling with recruitment and retention of women in wildland firefighting, especially here in Region 3, the idea came about to host a “Women In Wildland Fire Boot Camp” to target our female audience. Luckily, our FAM (Fire and Aviation Management) staff liked the idea and were willing to help fund our first Boot Camp back in March 2011. Our first Boot Camp in March 2011 was great and we had 20 candidates here in New Mexico and I believe, 14 in Arizona. We then hosted the Boot Camp again in March 2012 with not quite as many applicants and did not have a 2013 Boot Camp due to lack of funding. Last fall, I developed and submitted a proposal to the Forest Service FAM Diversity Program to receive funding and support to keep the efforts going. This was with much help from Helen Graham (Assistant Fire Management Officer-Tonto National Forest) in AZ and Linda Wadleigh (Mogollon Rim District Ranger-Coconino National Forest). Luckily we received special project funding through our Washington Office FAM to help fund and support the Boot Camp for the next three years.”

Women in Fire Bootcamp

The driving force in the Women in Fire Bootcamp, Bequi Livingston (center) addresses bootcamp participants during the first weekend of the event in Albuquerque, NM. September 7, 2014. PHOTO BY KRISTEN HONIG

Ms. Livingston continued: “Part of this history includes my personal story and challenges as one of the first women in wildland fire and also my experience in Region 5 with the horrid Consent Decree. One of my intentions is to provide a safe and trusting environment for these candidates with great instructors (men and women) to ensure that we set them up for success rather than failure.”

“Although the program’s intent is to recruit and train women as its target audience, we are very inclusive in that we accept and consider ALL (her emphasis) applicants equally, including males. In fact, we have our first male in our current New Mexico session and he’s been great. We did not get enough applicants to fill all our slots for the New Mexico Boot Camp and had several female applicants pull out, which left us with additional open slots. Josh turned in a good application, is very interested in the program and is in one of those slots. Although our primary intention is to recruit and train women as the target audience, we consider all applicants equally”, Ms. Livingston added.

Jeb Koons, a Fire Management Officer from the Coconino National Forest and one of the Arizona Bootcamp’s instructors summed it up this way: “the program is to recruit women, but once they are here, they are all firefighters”.

Jesse Causer  of the Coconino National Forest begins the classroom work at Women in Fire Bootcamp at Phoenix Interagency Fire Center @ Gateway on September 7th, 2014. Photo by Tom Story.

Jesse Causer of the Coconino National Forest begins the classroom work at Women in Fire Bootcamp at Phoenix Interagency Fire Center @ Gateway on September 7th, 2014. Photo by Tom Story.

So it was all classroom the first weekend, with more classroom work the second weekend with a field day hosted at the Tonto National Forest’s Goldfield Admin Site on the Mesa Ranger District. There the lectures were put into practice with hands on experience digging line, water handling, mop up, tool sharpening and fire shelter practice along with familiarization with firing devices, pumps, engines and getting used to working together as a crew.

Women in Fire Bootcamp

Bootcamp alumnus Katie Markey and Kaly Spinler, now both on the Coronado National Forest’s Engine 552 and this years bootcamp participants watch a small brush pile burn during the Women in Fire Bootcamp Field Day September 13th, 2014. Photo by Tom Story.

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Report: Fuel treatments made two Arizona fires more controlable

Burnout on the Slide Fire

Burnout operation on the Slide Fire. InciWeb photo.

Forest treatments to reduce hazardous fuels made it easier to contain two wildfires in Arizona this year, according to Wally Covington, the director of the Ecological Restoration Institute, and a Regents’ professor of forest ecology at Northern Arizona University. In an op-ed at LiveScience, Mr. Covington said the fires had the conditions, and the chance, to burn hundreds of houses and destroy some of the state’s most coveted recreational tourist attractions, but they didn’t.

He is referring to the 21,000-acre Slide Fire and the 7,000-acre San Juan Fire which started in May and June, respectively. While they still grew into large fires, Mr. Covington said they could have become very damaging megafires, if not for the fuel treatments previously conducted on the Apache-Sitgreaves and Coconino National Forests.

Below is an excerpt from the article:

…The San Juan fire also provided lessons about how treated areas did what they were designed to do: slow a fire’s advance and restore a forest’s natural ability to self-regulate. How a wildfire behaves when it reaches a treatment area is a good test of how those treatments work. Fire crews and incident management teams reported that when the fire burned into areas that had been thinned, it burned with low severity and on the ground, not in treetops. The dry, frequent-fire forests of the West evolved with this type of fire, a slow-moving, low severity surface fire that would remove young trees and revitalize understory grasses and forbs. Anecdotal evidence from the San Juan Fire also suggests that the previously treated areas allowed fire crews to safely conduct burnout operations, thus enabling them to manage and control the fire.

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Arizona: Sitgreaves Complex Managed Fires

(Editor’s note. Today we are welcoming another writer and photographer to the Wildfire Today family. Tom Story, based in Phoenix, is a former newspaper photographer, now self employed editorial and commercial shooter, a one time National Interagency Fire Center contract photographer, and a longtime friend of the wildland fire community. Tom not only researched and wrote the article, but took the photos as well. Bill.)

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Sitgreaves Complex Fire

The crew from Kaibab National Forest Engine 314 — (left to right) Berkeley Krueger, Ben Winkler, and Keith Halloran, consult a map as they plan the day’s managed ignitions on the Sitgreaves Complex August 8, 2014.

“When monsoons arrive in northern Arizona, it is the ideal time for us to manage fires. Fire plays an absolutely essential role in keeping the forest healthy and in reducing the likelihood of high-severity fires that could threaten our neighboring communities,” said Art Gonzales, fire staff officer for the Kaibab National Forest.

So when a lightning strike on Sitgreaves Mountain, between Flagstaff and Williams, Ariz., on the evening of July 13, 2014, ignited a fire, one of several started on the Kaibab National Forest from summer thunderstorms that day, the Kaibab had plans in place to manage it as a resource benefit fire with the hope that they would be able to have the fire treat up to 19,000 acres of mostly ponderosa pine.

Sitgreaves Complex Fire

Ground fire from managed ignitions moves across the floor of the Kaibab National Forest on the Sitgreaves Complex August 8, 2014.

Resource benefit fires are managed for multiple objectives including reducing accumulated forest litter and fuels, maintaining fire in a fire-adapted ecosystem, increasing firefighter and public safety, and protecting cultural resources and wildlife habitat.

The Sitgreaves Fire occurred in an area that had been clear cut in the late 1800s-then reseeded, leaving a large area of similar aged trees and because of subsequent policies by the Forest Service, pretty much untouched by fire for over one hundred years.

Sitgreaves Complex Fire

The Grand Canyon National Park Helicopter, Papillon Helicopters’ A-Star B3 8PA, was used on the Kaibab National Forest’s Sitgreaves Complex for aerial ignition using a plastic sphere dispenser (PSD), August 8, 2014.

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