Secretary of Interior orders more aggressive fuel management

The directive introduces a political element to wildland fire management

Jasper Fire
The Jasper Fire approaches the Visitor Center at Jewel Cave National Monument, August 25, 2000. NPS photo by Bill Gabbert.

In a message to Directors and Managers in the Department of the Interior, Secretary Ryan Zinke ordered “more aggressive practices” to “prevent and combat the spread of catastrophic wildfires through robust fuels reduction and pre-suppression techniques”. The directive, dated September 12, 2017, attracted attention today when Mr. Zinke referred to it in a press release about the President’s proposed budget for Fiscal Year 2019.

“In September, I directed all land managers to adopt aggressive practices to prevent the spread of
catastrophic wildfires,” said Mr. Zinke in the February 12 release. “The President’s budget request for the Wildland Fire Management program provides the resources needed for fuels management and efforts that will help protect firefighters, the public and local communities.”

The September 12 directive mentions implementing FireWise principles around government facilities:

The Department has lost historic structures in wildfires like Glacier National Park’s historic Sperry Chalet lodge. In an effort to help prevent future losses, the Secretary is also directing increased protection of Interior assets that are in wildfire prone areas, following the Firewise guidance, writing: “If we ask local communities to ‘be safer from the start’ and meet Firewise standards, we should be the leaders of and the model for ‘Firewise-friendly’ standards in our planning, development, and maintenance of visitor-service and administrative facilities.”

It is a wise move to encourage better fuel management and FireWise techniques around public structures in fire-prone areas. I have seen too many U.S. Forest Service and National Park Service facilities with nearby hazardous fuels that make them extremely vulnerable to a wildfire. An example is the photo above showing dense tree canopy very close to the visitor center at Jewel Cave National Memorial as the Jasper Fire approached in 2000. A few years after that a professional tree service was brought in to thin out the large pines within 100 feet of the headquarters building at Mount Rushmore as a large wildfire burned nearby. Firefighters took the same action at Devils Tower National Memorial when a fire was bearing down on the visitors center. Waiting until a fire is an imminent threat is not the best policy.

When the 83,000-acre Jasper Fire burned into Jewel Cave National Monument in 2000 the shake shingle roof on an isolated historic structure surrounded by ponderosa pines had just been replaced with a new roof. A reasonable person would have chosen materials that look like shakes, but are fire resistant. The new wooden shake shingles had to foamed by engine crews before they withdrew on three occasions when the fire lofted burning embers at the site and made runs at the structure.

While Mr. Zinke makes some good points about more aggressive fuel management on public lands, he attempts to reinforce his directive by introducing a political element. I don’t read every directive issued by the Secretary of the Interior, but politicizing wildland fire management is not productive.

In the third paragraph Mr. Zinke is quoted taking an unnecessary swipe at the land managers that preceded him, saying:

This Administration will take a serious turn from the past and will proactively work to prevent forest fires through aggressive and scientific fuels reduction management to save lives, homes, and wildlife habitat.

It is an unusual but welcome tactic for the current administration to invoke science in a discussion.

The directive goes on to include quotes attributed to five senators and representatives, all Republicans, and all supposedly saying that Mr. Zinke is right. No Democrats were quoted.

One of the most egregious examples is from Rob Bishop, (R-Utah):

I’m heartened to finally have an Administration that’s focused on actively managing and addressing the on-the-ground conditions that are contributing to our historic wildfire crisis.

Mr. Bishop goes on to advocate more logging.

Politicizing wildland fire management and going out of your way to create barriers that make it more difficult to get anything done, is not the best course of action to preserve and protect our natural resources and public facilities. It brings to mind one of Mr. Zinke’s predecessors, James Watt, who served as Secretary of the Interior from 1981 to 1983.

Jasper Fire, 13 years later

Jasper Fire south dakota
Jasper Fire pyrocumulus, about two hours after the fire started, August 24, 2000. NPS photo by Bill Gabbert.

It has been almost 13 years since the Jasper Fire raged across 83,000 acres of the Black Hills of South Dakota. It started when a woman stopped on Highway 16 a couple of miles west of Jewel Cave National Monument to pee, she said later. Before she left, she lit a match, dropped it, and watched as it ignited a few pine needles and then started spreading across the forest floor. When I got to the area about two hours later I took the photo above of the pyrocumulus cloud over the fire.

Over the next several days the wind direction changed frequently driving the fire in different directions. It burned into the Black Hills National Forest and through Jewel Cave National Monument. But thanks to the prescribed fire program and fuel mitigation work that had been going on at Jewel Cave for a decade or so, no structures were damaged, except for an old historic outhouse which burned during mopup when the engine crew working nearby had their thumbs up their asses back turned.

As you can see in the article below by the Black Hills National Forest, rehab and mitigation is still going on.

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Date: April 2, 2013

Forest Service Continues Management within the Jasper Fire Area

Custer, SD – Black Hills National Forest Officials continue management actions within the Jasper and Roger’s Shack Fire areas that occurred on the Hell Canyon Ranger District west of Custer nearly 13 years ago. These two fire areas total about 90,000 acres.

Tree planting is scheduled to begin in April, to assist with reforestation of the Jasper area. Research plots established within the fire boundary have resulted in and continue to provide opportunity for valuable local research on fire effects and post-fire recovery.

Hell Canyon District Ranger, Lynn Kolund recently signed a decision which will allow for approximately 16,500 acres of fire hazard reduction in these fire areas. Over the course of about 10 years, prescribed burning will be used to reduce the fire hazard in these areas. In addition, the decision includes about 650 acres of thinning to improve the health and vigor of islands of forest stands within these areas. “Over the next several years we will work on this project to make the area more resilient for the future,” said District Ranger Lynn Kolund.

Fire officials are concerned about the fire danger this area presents as most of the dead trees have fallen over and grass has grown up around them. In some areas, the resulting fuel concentrations are 5 feet deep. According to Kolund, “Fires in these areas quickly spread like a grass fire but have the heat of a timber fire; they’re very dangerous to firefighters.”

Forest officials are focused on restoring the land, but safety is a top priority when it comes to fire danger. “There is a tremendous amount of fuel loading out there and it is a dangerous situation” said Gwen Lipp, Fire Management Officer for the Hell Canyon Ranger District. “When we get a wildfire in this area, it will be extremely difficult to control. This project will reduce the long term fire hazard and also improve the ability for firefighters to move quickly to put out a fire in the future.”

In addition to the prescribed burning, Forest officials will be thinning vegetation and planting new ponderosa pine trees. Kolund said, “We are doing our job as a land management agency. Restoration of this area of the Forest will ensure its availability for future generations.”

For more information on the Hell Canyon Maintenance Burn project, visit http://www.fs.fed.us/nepa/fs-usda-pop.php/?project=22242

(end of USFS article)

Jasper Fire
The Jasper Fire approaches the Visitor Center at Jewel Cave National Monument, August 25, 2000. NPS photo by Bill Gabbert.
Jasper Fire
Firefighters use foam to protect the Visitor Center at Jewel Cave National Monument during the Jasper Fire, August 25, 2000. NPS photo by Bill Gabbert.

 

South Dakota state Fire Chief retires

2000 Jasper fire
The Jasper fire, about 2 hours after it started on August 25, 2000. Photo by Bill Gabbert

Joe Lowe, the Director (or Fire Chief) of the South Dakota Division of Wildland Fire Suppression retired on Monday. Joe was the first and so far the only Director of the agency that was formed in 2001. Before accepting that position, he worked in wildland fire suppression in southern California.

During most of the decade of the 1990s, there were few large fires in South Dakota. That began changing in August of 2000 when the Flagpole and Jasper fires burned 7,000 and 83,000 acres respectively in the Black Hills. Then-Governor Bill Janklow, who died of brain cancer on January 12, became extremely interested in wildfire suppression at that time.

I was the Incident Commander on the Flagpole fire for the first two days and received two late night phone calls from the Governor telling me he was sending resources to the fire, including 17 dozers and dozens of fire engines from across the state that later just showed up on the fireline. This was outside of the ordering system and the Incident Command System, and created havoc and safety issues on the fire. The Governor also directed that National Guard dozers take independent action on the Jasper fire, and threatened to start backfires without coordinating with the Type 1 Incident Management Team running the fire. The Incident Commander placed a resource order for U.S. Marshals who stood by at the Incident Command Post ready to put a halt to any actions that put firefighters in danger.

The next year, the Governor created the Division of Wildland Fire Suppression and put Joe in charge. Joe’s experience, management skills, and the fact that the Governor trusted him established a buffer between the Governor and the other wildfire organizations in the state — and we heard a collective sigh of relief. Joe brought additional professionalism and the concept of initially attacking fires with “overwhelming force” to the Division.

During his 10 years as the state Fire Chief, Joe, working with his interagency partners, helped establish the Northern Great Plains Interagency Dispatch Center, the Great Plains Interstate Compact, the State Handcrew Program, the State Aerial Firefighting Program, and the Rocky Mountain Type 2 Incident Management Team C.

Steve Hasenohrl, Assistant Chief for Administration, is the Acting Director until Joe’s replacement is named.

I tried to get in touch with Joe today, calling his gallery, Reflections of South Dakota, but he was out doing a television interview and setting up the gallery’s booth at the Black Hills Stock Show and Rodeo which begins January 27. Joe has been an avid photographer for years, and opened the gallery with his wife Wendy in May of 2007.

His plans are to remain in the Rapid City area and to be available for assignments on large fires.

Joe Lowe at gallery
Joe Lowe at the opening of his Gallery in Rapid City, May 4, 2007. Photo by Bill Gabbert

South Dakota governor vows to fight fire in federal wilderness area

According to quotes in an article in the Rapid City Journal, Mike Rounds, the governor of South Dakota, appears to be bellicose and aggressive about fighting fire in the federal Black Elk Wilderness area in the Black Hills National Forest.

The 1964 Wilderness Act includes these provisions:

…there shall be no temporary road, no use of motor vehicles, motorized equipment or motorboats, no landing of aircraft, no other form of mechanical transport, and no structure or installation within any such area.

and

….measures may be taken as may be necessary in the control of fire, insects, and diseases, subject to such conditions as the Secretary deems desirable.

Fire suppression routinely occurs in wilderness areas on national forests, but the use of motorized equipment in a wilderness area usually requires incident-specific approval from the Forest Supervisor, the highest-ranking federal employee at the national forest.

In the article, Governor Rounds implies that he would order state fire resources to take action on federal lands on which the fire suppression responsibility lies with the U. S. Forest Service (USFS). He appears to assume that the USFS would not suppress fires within the wilderness area, but as far as we know, that is not the case.

Here is an excerpt from the article:

Gov. Mike Rounds says wilderness designation won’t stop him from sending in state firefighting crews if a blaze breaks out in the Black Elk Wilderness, where a mountain pine beetle outbreak has increased the risk for a major wildfire.

“In an emergency, they’re going to have to stop me from going in,” Rounds said in a recent interview.

But federal forest managers say they, too, plan to fight fire within the Black Elk Wilderness. In fact, crews have fought fires in the Black Elk in previous years, according to Black Hills National Forest supervisor Craig Bobzien. The amount and type of equipment they would use depends on the fire threat level, Bobzien said.

Rounds has cited the Black Elk Wilderness, where pine beetles have killed up to 80 percent of the trees, as one reason for his opposition to a wilderness proposal for parts of the Buffalo Gap National Grassland east of Rapid City and his support for the National Park Service’s cancellation of fireworks for the Independence Day celebration at Mount Rushmore. The Black Elk lies next to Mount Rushmore National Memorial and now poses a threat of wildfire for the central Black Hills, including Rushmore to the northeast and Custer State Park to the south, Rounds said.

Even without fireworks, one lightning strike after a dry period could set off a conflagration, Rounds said. “It’s a matter not of if, but when you have a major fire there.”

Rounds said state firefighting crews would be aggressive if fire breaks out in the Black Elk.

“If it means going onto some wilderness areas in order to stop it, then so be it,” he said. “We’re going to stop it before it gets out and does damage to public property that belongs to the state of South Dakota and before it damages private property and before it gets out and has an opportunity to impact human life.”

But Rounds said he and other state officials are talking with Black Hills National Forest managers to prepare for the coming fire season, including the possibility of a fire in the Black Elk Wilderness or the surrounding Norbeck Wildlife Preserve.

Rounds and Joe Lowe, coordinator of the state Wildland Fire Suppression Division, say cooperation between the state and local Forest Service officials is good.

Bobzien agrees and says that the Forest Service can — and will — fight fire in the Norbeck and even in the Black Elk Wilderness. He said, in fact, that the Forest Service has fought fires in the Black Elk in previous years.

Bobzien said the 1964 Wilderness Act allows firefighting in wilderness areas, with varying restrictions for varying levels of emergency.

The greater the risk of catastrophic fire, the more that mechanized equipment can be used within the wilderness, he said. For example, if a lightning strike starts a fire in moist conditions, Bobzien can authorize hand crews with crosscut saws.

“We have done some of that already,” he said. “That’s routine throughout past fire seasons.”

But if fire breaks out in hot, dry conditions, mechanized equipment up to and including helicopters can be used to fight fire in the Black Elk, Bobzien said.

Gov. Bill Janklow and South Dakota Wildland Fire Coordinator Joe Lowe look over a map during the Battle Creek Fire of 2002. Photo: Rapid City Journal
Gov. Bill Janklow and South Dakota Wildland Fire Coordinator Joe Lowe look over a map during the Battle Creek Fire of 2002. Photo: Rapid City Journal

Governor Rounds’ attitude reminds me of his predecessor, Governor Bill Janklow, who threatened during the 83,508-acre Jasper fire in 2000, to order state fire crews to set backfires out ahead of the fire without any coordination with the Type 1 Incident Management Team that was running the fire. This, of course, would have put firefighters and probably private property at great risk. Bill Waterbury, the Incident Commander, ordered federal marshals to stand by at the incident command post who were prepared to arrest state employees (or even the governor?) if the backfires had been lit.

Janklow also ordered that National Guard dozers be used to build dozer lines way out ahead of the fire, independent of the organized fire suppression effort, creating significant safety and resource damage concerns.

When questioned about the safety of the dozer operation he ordered that did not have adequate supervision, Janklow said if a dozer gets burned over because the operator knows nothing about wildfire, he will just buy another one. When asked, “What about the operator” that gets burned over, he said, “Anyone can outrun a fire”.

In an excellent article by Denise Ross and Bill Harlan in the October 29, 2002 issue of the Rapid City Journal, the situation was described, in part, this way:

When Waterbury arrived as Type I commander, he and Janklow had a frank discussion about who was in charge of the fire.

Waterbury said he told the governor there would be only one incident commander on the fire. “I did make the comment that if it came down to a point of putting firefighters at risk or independent actions, whether that be private citizens or the National Guard, I wouldn’t hesitate to pull all of our firefighters off the line,” Waterbury said in a recent interview. “If necessary, we’d use our federal authority to arrest people who were interfering with our firefighting.”

Janklow recalled the conversation this way: “I told him, ‘You’re not going to arrest me or anybody else. Unless I have your word that this fire won’t go on private property, I’ll fight this fire wherever it’s at.’ And I did.”

But federal firefighters said the fire line Janklow cut damaged forest roads without helping to stop the fire.

I was the Incident Commander during the early stages of the Flagpole fire in 2000 when I received a midnight phone call from Governor Jankow informing me that he was sending fire engines and 17 dozers from all across the state to the fire. I told him that we had plenty of resources and didn’t need them, but those words fell on deaf ears.

Over the next few hours those resources started showing up, with no resource tracking or order numbers, and with no idea where to go or what to do. They just headed to the smoke with no assignment, accountability, briefing, or integration into the organization, creating huge safety issues.

When we turned the fire over to an incoming incident management team, Governor Jankow attended the inbriefing and sat in the front row. I kept waiting for him to speak up and try to dictate the strategy and tactics, but surprisingly and uncharacteristically, he remained silent while I facilitated the briefing.

After leaving the Governor’s office, Bill Janklow became the state’s Representative to the U.S. Congress. But after driving his white Cadillac through a stop sign at 63 to 70 mph and hitting and killing Randy Scott who was on a motorcycle going through the intersection, he was convicted of manslaughter and in 2004 was sentenced to 100 days in jail. In his State of the State speeches, Janklow had boasted about his lead-footed driving habits. After the felony conviction and two days before the sentencing, he resigned from Congress.

I hope Governor Rounds is not using Governor Janklow as his role model. And I suggest that all governors leave the firefighting to the professionals. Any fires in the Black Elk Wilderness will be suppressed, regardless of any ill-informed and ill-advised politicians’ blustering, which tend to strain interagency relationships.