Report: USFS won’t let forest ecologist talk about reforming fire management

Norbeck prescribed fire,

Alpine Hot Shots ignite the Norbeck prescribed fire in Wind Cave National Park, South Dakota. October 21, 2014. Photo by Bill Gabbert.

An article at Capital Public Radio claims that the U.S. Forest Service will not let a forest ecologist talk about an article he co-wrote titled “Reform Forest Fire Management”. The two-page opinion piece about making forests less prone to wildfire appeared in Science, and was written primarily by USFS and university employees.

Below is an excerpt from the article at Capital Public Radio about the controversy:


“The US Forest Service Pacific Southwest Research Station won’t let forest ecologist Malcolm North talk about the study he authored in the journal Science.

The agency even unsuccesfully requested that Science editors hold the article or remove North’s name and affiliation from the peer-reviewed study.  The paper “Reform Forest Fire Management” says suppressing every fire in overgrown forests is not only expensive but dangerous and ill-advised.

Strong words perhaps, but UC Berkeley Fire Scientist Scott Stephens, who co-authored the paper, says they are not controversial.

“I read the paper many times,” says Stephens. “I just didn’t see something jump, like this would be something that would really cause great problems.”

The study considers ways to make forests less prone to wildfire, by thinning trees in overgrown forests, using controlled burns or allowing natural fires to burn under the right conditions.

US Forest Service policy actually supports those actions, but the authors point out such efforts rarely occur. In the decade ending in 2008, only 0.4 percent of ignitions were allowed to burn as managed wildfires…”

Senator advocates additional consultation prior to prescribed fires

Cold Brook Fire April 13, 2015

Cold Brook Fire April 13, 2015, shortly after the prescribed fire crossed Highway 385 and escaped. This is looking northwest. Photo by Benjamin Carstens (click to enlarge)

Senator John Thune of South Dakota had a video edited that stars him as he makes statements and asks questions during a committee hearing about forestry issues. The hearing occurred July 16 before the Senate Committee on Agriculture, Nutrition and Forestry. The panelist in the video is Robert Bonnie, the U.S. Department of Agriculture’s Under Secretary for  Natural Resources and Environment.

Mr. Thune was pushing Senate Bill 1100 that he is sponsoring (without any co-sponsors) titled Prescribed Burn Approval Act of 2015. You can see the entire hearing HERE (it starts at 17:00). Mr. Thune’s edited version is below.

In the video, he said, referring to two recent escaped prescribed fires on federal land in South Dakota, [The agencies]….”had no business in a couple of these circumstances starting fires given the weather conditions that were existing at the time, and people at the local level would know that. So all we’re asking for is consultation at the front end before this happens and work with folks and get their sign-off and then on the back end when something like this happens a response that is timely, expedited and effective.”

The Senator got fired up after two recent large escaped prescribed fires in South Dakota. In 2013 the Pasture 3B prescribed fire escaped in the Dakota Prairie National Grasslands in northern South Dakota. It was planned at 210 acres, but strong winds on April 3, 2013 caused by the predicted passage of a cold front pushed the fire across a mowed fire line into tall grass and ultimately burned 10,679 acres, (3,519 acres federal and 7,160 acres private). The wildfire, named Pautre Fire, was stopped at 11 p.m. that night.

More recently, on April 13, 2015 the Cold Brook prescribed fire, which was planned as a 1,000-acre project in Wind Cave National Park in southwest South Dakota, spotted across U.S. Highway 385 and burned 5,420 acres of park land outside of the intended burn unit. The escape was entirely within the boundaries of Wind Cave National Park. A few days later Mr. Thune sent a strongly worded letter to Secretary of the Interior Sally Jewel criticizing the National Park Service for the escaped prescribed fire.

The legislation the Senator is pushing is not lengthy, but has some interesting requirements, such as, a prescribed fire can’t be executed on federal land if the grassland fire danger index indicates a high, very high, or extreme danger of grassland fire, or if the Chief of the Forest Service has declared very high or extreme fire danger. However, the project could still be carried out “if the head of the Federal agency obtains prior approval from the applicable State government and local fire officials”.

And there’s this: “A head of a Federal agency that authorizes a prescribed burn shall be liable for any damage to private property caused by the prescribed burn, notwithstanding chapter 171 of title 28, United States Code (commonly known as the “Federal Tort Claims Act”) or any State law.” The proposed bill also says damages must be paid within 120 days of receipt of a substantiated claim.

These provisions raise a few questions. The grassland fire danger index is exclusively designed to predict the potential for non-agricultural grasslands to carry fire. This could be a useful indicator for prescribed fires in grasses, but not necessarily for projects in other fuel types and elevations.

And I am not aware of the Chief of the Forest Service making a proclamation establishing a daily fire danger rating.

I am no attorney, but it appears that the legislation, if it becomes law, would make the head of agencies personally liable for damages resulting from escaped prescribed fires. If so, and if they would not be automatically reimbursed, it could be difficult to entice anyone to accept those positions.

$50 million in claims over escaped prescribed fire reportedly denied

Pautre Fire origin

USFS photo from the report on the escaped prescribed fire, the Pautre Fire, in North Dakota and South Dakota.

The Associated Press is reporting that the Department of Agriculture, in a letter signed by Department Secretary Tom Vilsack, is denying $50 million in claims filed by sixteen ranchers and landowners over a prescribed fire that escaped and burned 10,679 acres in North Dakota and South Dakota.

The “Pasture 3B” prescribed fire was planned to be 210 acres on the Dakota Prairie National Grasslands, but strong winds on April 3, 2013 caused by the predicted passage of a cold front pushed the fire across a mowed fire line into tall grass and ultimately burned 10,679 acres, (3,519 acres federal and 7,160 acres private). The wildfire, named Pautre Fire, was stopped at 11 p.m. that night.

In explaining the denial, Secretary Vilsack said the Forest Service relied on forecasts from the National Weather Service in Rapid City, South Dakota, that ultimately proved inaccurate.

In February, 2014 the US Forest Service released a report about the fire, called a “Facilitated Learning Analysis. The issues listed by the document included:

  • Improved weather forecasts are needed.
  • Consider additional research on methods to predict effects of drought on fire behavior in grass fuel models.
  • The nearest remote automated weather station (RAWS) is more than 90 miles away.
  • The project was conducted at the critical edge of the prescription.
  • Consider gaming out worst case scenario “what ifs” during the planning process, and discuss with participants during the on-site briefing.
  • There were problems with radio communications [note from Bill: I don’t remember EVER seeing a report like this that did not cite radio communications as being an issue].

Tonight’s sunset picture, June 25, 2015

wind cave national park sunset

Sunset over the two month old Cold Brook prescribed fire in Wind Cave National Park. Photo by Bill Gabbert, June 25, 2015. (click to enlarge)

Tonight’s sunset picture was taken June 25 in Wind Cave National Park within the April 15 Cold Brook prescribed fire. With the copious rain over the last couple of months the area is aggressively green.

How prior fuel treatments affected the San Juan Fire

San Juan Fire severity

Map of the San Juan Fire “Rapid Assessment of Vegetation Condition after Wildfire”. The fire started at the south end near “San Juan Flat and eventually burned into many treated areas, represented by cross-hatching, where the fire intensity and rate of spread decreased.

The U.S. Forest Service has put together information about how previous fuel treatments modified fire behavior on the San Juan Fire on the Apache-Sitgreaves National Forest in Arizona in June of 2014. Below is an excerpt from a report, and below that is a video in which subject matter experts describe the effects of the treatments.

Generally speaking, the fuel treatments encountered by the San Juan Fire were effective at modifying fire behavior. Furthermore, these fuel treatment areas proved to be instrumental in providing fire managers with opportunities to contain the fire in a safe and effective manner while simultaneously limiting the fire’s potential negative effects on natural resources, the surrounding communities and their infrastructure.

Fire behavior observed by firefighters at the scene—as well as estimates of fire severity taken after the fire confirm that the treated areas performed as designed by not supporting sustained crown fire even under extreme burning conditions.

As the San Juan Fire transitioned from untreated mixed conifer to treated ponderosa pine, fire behavior also transitioned from intermittent and sustained high-intensity crown fire in the untreated stands to a low-moderate intensity surface fire in the treated stands.

Thus, firefighters were able to utilize the road system within the treated stands to implement their burnouts. These burnout operations limited the forward progress at the head of the fire the day after the fire started.

Igniting a prescribed fire from a horse

I have seen horses used on wildfires as a means of transportation for Division Supervisors and for hauling supplies, but never have I seen a firefighter igniting a fire while riding a horse.

An article in the Daytona Beach News-Journal had the above photo with this caption:

Danny Mills, a land management specialist with the St. Johns River Water Management District, starts a prescribed burn in Volusia County earlier in the year. Mills and his wife Ruby, Volusia County residents, train horses to work fires. Photo/ St. Johns River Water Management District.