Only you…

Fire in the Lake San Antonio area of Monterey County, California, August, 2009. Photo by Vern Fisher.

The following article was contributed by Frank Carroll.


Only You…

For the United States Forest Service and the other major federal, state and local wildland fire agencies, the music is playing the band.  It worked OK for the Grateful Dead.  It’s a different story when it comes to developing and conducting wildland fire policy.

It may surprise no one to discover that wildland fires are bigger, more costly, more damaging, and more out of control than in any decade before the present, all the way back to 1910.  There was so much large fire on the ground in the 2015 fire season we ran out of superlatives to describe how big and bad they were.  In many cases the fires burned together forming “charismatic megafires” of untold destruction, sometimes because we had no choice.

Author Stephen Pyne, in an often brutally honest book about where we’ve been and where we’re headed with fire management in America, observes that fire is managing us; we’re not managing fire (Between Two Fires 2015).

What began in the late 1960s as a scarcely heard warning siren that wildfire should be left to its own devices on certain wild lands (prescribed natural fire or “let burn” fires pioneered by the National Park Service) became, by 2000, a five alarm screaming wail heard round the world.  Our best laid plans have come to naught.  We are caught in a blizzard of falling ash, awash in a river of flying embers, and blinded by the smoke.  It is clear that no human power will stop the rising tide of flames in wildlands and Red Zone suburbs where 10 percent of our homes are, no matter what the cost.

How we got here is a tale worth reading.  Where we’re headed is into the fog of war, but not without guideposts and markers.  Based on the very sound idea that fire should play a natural role in natural resource management, agencies and scientists spent the past 50 years trying to work out how to get it done.  And they had help.  The Nature Conservancy can field its own firefighters and burn its own ground.  Environmentalists looked for ways to burn without having to pay for the work of preparing and herding fires, and without the expertise to help.  Their grand experiment in the theology/ecology of hope over the last 50 years accelerated the fuels problem. The fuels situation is also exacerbated in places where logging results in activity fuels with resulting backlogs needing treatment and feeding wildfires.

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USFWS prescribed fire burns structures

USFWS prescribed fire escape

U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service prescribed fire on the Arapaho National Wildlife Refuge, October 16, 2015. FWS photo by Eric Haberstick.

A wildfire resulting from an escaped prescribed fire on October 16 burned about 600 acres on the Arapaho National Wildlife Refuge, 3 miles south of Walden, Colorado. Three structures were destroyed — a barn, pump house, and mobile home used as a storage building. Firefighters from several federal agencies and Jackson County Fire Department contained the fire at 6 p.m. October 17.

9NEWS reported that two heavy air tankers, a single-engine air tanker, and heavy helicopter all made retardant drops on the fire.

U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service (FWS) officials are convening an interagency review team with expertise in wildfire suppression, prescribed fire planning, and data analysis to investigate the escape.

Firefighters ignited the prescribed fire Friday morning, planned at 370 acres, to remove decadent vegetation, reduce wildfire risk, and improve wildlife habitat. That afternoon, although conditions fit within the required burn parameters according to the FWS, the project escaped containment lines. Firefighters reported witnessing a firewhirl.

The video below was shot by Erik Haberstick for the FWS.

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

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.