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.

Secretary of Interior used wildfire funds for helicopter tour of National Monuments

The tour was prior to deciding which monuments to shrink

Before Secretary of the Interior Ryan Zinke made his recommendation to the President about which National Monuments to shrink, he used wildfire preparedness funds appropriated to the National Interagency Fire Center office in Boise to pay for helicopter flights over sites in Nevada.

According to an article in Newsweek by Celeste Katz, the use of the helicopter on June 26, 2017, which cost taxpayers and the Bureau of Land Management $39,295, was unrelated to wildland fire. The account used for the flights is designated for fire personnel salaries and equipment.

Below is an excerpt from the article:

But after Newsweek questioned the line item, an Interior Department spokeswoman said this week that the chopper—listed in an accounting of Zinke’s travel as costing $39,295—“was charged to the account in error.” She added that the BLM would pay for the helicopter from “a more appropriate account.”

The official purpose of the round-trip helicopter trip was for an “aerial survey of objects and boundaries pertaining to the 704,000 acres in Basin and Range National Monument and the 300,000 acres in Gold Butte National Monument.”

From Newsweek:

Zinke ultimately recommended shrinking not only Gold Butte in Nevada but other Western national monuments, including Bears Ears in Utah and Cascade-Siskiyou in Oregon and California. His Gold Butte recommendation angered conservationists but was hailed by Nevada Senator Dean Heller and the head of a local water district.

The National Incident Management Situation Report published on June 27, 2017, the morning after the helicopter tour, showed two large wildfires burning in Nevada, the Cole Creek and Dolly Fires, but Secretary Zinke did not visit any fires on his trip. The report showed that in the Great Basin Geographic Area, which includes Nevada, 16 helicopters were working on 21 fires, with 54 helicopters in use nationally.

Secretary Zinke has been criticized for using military, chartered, and National Park Service fixed and rotor wing aircraft, at times for purposes that could be difficult to justify.

The Department of the Interior supplied a list of some of the Secretary’s use of non-commercial aircraft, but it does not include a trip with Agriculture Secretary Sonny Perdue to Boise on August 24 on an Air Force plane similar to a Boeing 737.

Ryan Zinke air force aircraft 737

Wildfire activity continues in northwest California and southwest Oregon

Oregon’s Chetco Bar Fire has exceeded 100,000 acres

Above: Firefighters on structure protection duty set up a sprinkler system on the Chetco Bar Fire in Southwest Oregon. Undated photo on Inciweb.

(Originally published at 9:03 a.m. PDT August 24, 2017)

The wildfires in Southwest Oregon and Northwest California continue to grow at a fairly steady pace, with occasional large expansions during wind events.

The Chetco Bar Fire five miles northeast of Brookings, Oregon was mapped very early Thursday morning at 102,333 acres, moving past the 100,000-acre threshold into “megafire” territory. But it is still one-fifth the size of the Biscuit Fire that covered almost half a million acres in the same general area in 2002.

The red line was the perimeter of the Chetco Bar Fire at 12:16 a.m. PDT August 24, 2017. The white line was the perimeter two days before.

The map of the Chetco Bar Fire shows that while it continues to spread along much of the perimeter that growth has slowed since it quadrupled in size over a four-day period, August 18 to 22. It added 2,389 acres on Wednesday through minimal flanking, backing, and creeping fire behavior due to cooler temperatures and higher humidities.

More fighters have poured in to the Brookings, Oregon area which is five miles southwest of the fire. Over 1,100 personnel are now working on the blaze, including 21 hand crews, 118 engines, and 8 helicopters. The incident management teams report that 25 structures have burned.

Three teams are assigned to the Chetco Bar Fire: Livingston’s Type 1 team, Greer’s Type 2 team, and Houseman’s National Incident Management Organization (NIMO) team. (The NIMO folks need to come up with a better name for their teams.)

wildfires in southwest Oregon and Northwest California
The red, brown, and yellow dots represent heat detected only within the last week on wildfires in southwest Oregon and Northwest California.

The fires in Northwest California do not receive much press coverage since they are in remote, sparsely populated areas. The largest is the Eclipse Complex of five fires 10 miles north of Happy Camp which has burned 40,500 acres. It is also known as “CA-KNF-006098 Complex”. On Wednesday the inversion that had been moderating fire behavior lifted over one of the five fires, the Prescott Fire, which became active and burned towards the Oak Fire. This produced a large smoke column that caused ash fall along the Hwy 96 corridor and throughout the Happy Camp area.

Toll and Squirrel Fires
The Toll and Squirrel Fires are not in Northwest California, but are near Quincy, California. August 20, 2017. Inciweb.

In other wildfire news, the Secretaries of the Interior and Agriculture are visiting Missoula and the Lolo Peak Fire today (August 24), accompanied by the USFS National Fire Director, Shawna Legarza.

Continue reading “Wildfire activity continues in northwest California and southwest Oregon”

Could the Forest Service be shared by the Departments of Agriculture AND Interior?

Above: Interior Secretary Ryan Zinke speaks before the Public Lands Council March 28, 2017. Photo: @SecretaryZinke

The new Secretary of the Interior has considered having his department SHARE the U.S. Forest Service (FS) with the Department of Agriculture, where the FS currently resides.

There have been many discussions and some serious proposals about transferring the FS from the Department of Agriculture to other departments such as Interior, or creating a new Department of Natural Resources (or Conservation).

And there has been idle chatter about siphoning off the 13,000 wildland firefighters (who usually have job titles like Forestry Technician) in the Agriculture and Interior Departments to form a new National Wildfire Service, or moving them all to the Department of Homeland Security.

At the recent Incident Commander/Area Commander meeting in Reno, it was pointed out that 13 out of the last 16 Administrations had proposed some version of merging the FS with the DOI and the four primary land management agencies in the DOI, the Fish and Wildlife Service, Bureau of Land Management, Bureau of Indian Affairs, and the National Park Service. But the atmosphere this time is different — there are reports that the Trump Administration is receptive to a wide scale reorganization and an alignment with leadership that is very interested in land management issues. The word is that new Secretary of the Interior Ryan Zinke is well informed and engaged in fire and natural resource issues.

Up until now none of the reorganization ideas have made it very far through the bureaucracy, but when then Montana Representative Zinke was nominated in December as President Elect Trump’s Secretary of the Interior, moving the FS was again in the conversation. As Rep. Zinke made the rounds talking with Senators before his confirmation hearing his interest in moving the FS into Interior worried some Democratic lawmakers.

Oregon Senator Ron Wyden was more vocal than most and expressed his displeasure with the proposal. When the Senate Energy and Natural Resources Committee voted on Rep. Zinke’s confirmation as Secretary of the Interior on January 31, Senator Wyden abstained, citing the movement of the FS as a problem. Rep. Zinke was approved in the committee on a vote of 16-6-1 (yes-no-abstain).

A source we talked with on Capitol Hill who asked to remain anonymous told us that after the committee vote Senator Wyden extracted a pledge from Rep. Zinke that if confirmed as Secretary, he would not pursue reorganizing the FS. With that promise, on March 1 the Senator voted for the confirmation in the full Senate.

Just after that vote, the Senator issued a statement, saying in part:

After several discussions, I received an assurance that as secretary of the Interior, Rep. Zinke will focus on doing his job, which includes protecting our special places and managing the forests already within the Interior Department’s control, instead of engaging in senseless reorganization of bureaucracies.

Our Capitol Hill source said now that Secretary Zinke is on the job, he still can’t completely let go of the desire to move the FS.

In fact, when the Secretary spoke before the Public Lands Council on March 28, he talked about a “joint command” of the FS according to E&E news:

“I may not get the Forest Service, but we’re going to work with the Forest Service and figure out how to not be so stove-piped,” the Interior chief said. Zinke indicated that he and Agriculture secretary nominee Sonny Perdue had discussed a “joint command” model like the ones used by the Pentagon to manage personnel across the military services.

Secretary Zinke may be thinking that this arrangement would not violate his promise to Senator Wyden. However, the Senator expressly mentioned he did not want to see “senseless reorganization of bureaucracies”.

As the new administration very slowly fills jobs vacated by the Obama team, there are hundreds of vacancies remaining, and many of the new hires or appointees have little or no government experience. A reporter we talked with today said some agencies are still in a “think tank” mode, as the personnel lack the knowledge, skills, and experience to hit the ground running, so they are often throwing ideas against the wall to see what sticks. In some cases they can’t tell a good idea from a bad one, or how to implement a new decision or policy.

OUR OPINION

bad ideaThere are some compelling reasons for placing the major federal land management agencies under one umbrella, but a co-managed, shared, or jointly commanded agency is not a great solution. When a big decision has to be made, which department’s hierarchy gets to make it? When policies and procedures within the departments differ, how do you choose? Who would set priorities? Which department’s budget system would be used? Which Secretary testifies before Congress regarding the FS? Who would the Chief of the FS report to? A bad, half-assed decision is worse than no decision. It would be like cutting the baby in half.

Smokey Bear becomes an issue at Senate Hearing

As the Senate Committee on Energy and Natural Resources conducted a hearing to consider the nomination of Montana Representative Ryan Zinke to be the new Secretary of the Interior, Smokey Bear became an issue.

The Committee also discussed the Chimney Tops 2 Fire that in November burned into Gatlinburg, Tennessee.