THIS DAY IN FIRE HISTORY: Weeks Act’s suppression focus sets stage for catastrophic fires

The “most important law in the creation of eastern national forests” was established on this day 113 years ago.

The Weeks Act, signed into law by President William Howard Taft on March 1, 1911, allowed the federal government to purchase private land to protect the headwaters of rivers and watersheds in the eastern United States. The act nationalized the U.S. Forest Service, as neither federal nor state  governments owned substantial forested lands east of the Mississippi River before the act’s passage.

Speaker of the House Joe CannonAccording to the Forest History Society, in just 10 years Congress had rejected more than 40 bills calling for the establishment of eastern national forests.

Senators and congressmen opposed these measures for various  reasons; some western representatives (and conservation groups) who supported national forests in principle resented the possible loss of funding to their eastern counterparts. Many fiscal conservatives agreed with House Speaker Joe Cannon when he declared “not one cent for scenery.”

Leadership on the issue came from a surprise source. Congressman John Weeks, a Republican from Massachusetts, was a former naval officer and a successful banker. Weeks was elected to the House in 1905, and two years later he was appointed to the House Committee on Agriculture by Speaker Cannon.

Congressman John Wingate Weeks
Congressman John Wingate Weeks

At first Weeks didn’t understand why — he had few farmers in his district, and he had little interest in agricultural issues in Congress. He was concerned, though, about the damage logging had caused in the White Mountains, near where he had grown up and where he now summered with his family. Speaker Cannon told Weeks that if he, as a businessman, could put together a forestry bill that he supported, then Cannon would get it considered in the House. The man who had once declared “not one cent for scenery” had changed his mind.

The Weeks Act not only paved the way for the National Forest System, but also established the nation’s first interagency wildland firefighting effort, an effort that continued and worsened the settler colonial practice of fire suppression through bans of cultural fire usage.

There were multiple reasons for prioritizing USFS fire control for the new forests, according to a system article published on the act’s centennial. A 1902 report described the biggest threats to Appalachian forests as being fires and logging. In 1910, a series of catastrophic wildfires now known as the “Big Blowup” devastated Idaho and Montana, killing more than 100 firefighters and destroying several towns. Forest reserve advocates used these and other fire events to convince Congress to establish an agency that would primarily focus on wildfire suppression.

“Fire lookout towers and trails were built and ‘forest guards’ were hired at a salary of $50 a month,” the USFS article said. “Because the Weeks Act provided matching federal funding for state wildfire management spending, state divisions of forestry also upgraded their fire control organizations.”

What wildland firefighters now affirm as an uninformed suppression effort was worsened through fear-based short-sighted decisionmaking, along with xenophobic attitudes toward the people who had long lived on the land.

The Karuk Tribe in California views the passage of the Weeks Act and the increasing catastrophic fires across the country as having a direct connection.

“The passage of the Weeks Act in 1911 following the Big Burn of 1910 made cultural uses of fire essentially illegal, and for the many decades following, less and less burning occurred while more and more vegetation grew,” the tribe’s website said. “Over a century of policies of fire suppression has  created the conditions for the catastrophic, high-intensity wildfires we are seeing today. Warming temperatures and summer droughts further exacerbate these conditions.”

The USFS wildland firefighting system now largely understands the benefit of managed fire and makes an effort to include tribes in its decisionmaking. There is more work to be done, however, as climate change further exacerbates the cracks in the system that firefighters and managers are trying to mend. For better or for worse, it all started with the Weeks Act.

A prescribed burn stalled a huge Texas fire — and Smokehouse Creek Fire hits the million-acre mark

Aerial images from Hutchinson County, Texas shot with a drone yesterday show the aftermath of a huge fire adjacent to a 7-mile swath of land that was prescription burned a few months ago near Borger, a Panhandle town of about 12,000 in north Texas.

Borger, Texas
Borger, Texas, on Wednesday. Photo by City of Borger / Hutchinson County Office of Emergency Management.
15:08 CST 02/29
15:08 CST 02/29

Northeast of there, the Smokehouse Creek Fire, the largest of at least five other active fires in the Panhandle, has burned over 1 million acres, leaving charred homes and buildings behind. The fire’s doubled in size since 03:00 CST on 02/28.

The drone images in a CNN report feature a 7-mile prescribed burn that was conducted a few months ago.

Officials with Borger’s Office of Emergency Management said the prescribed burn prevented a fire flank from spreading into the southern parts of the town, including the Meadowlark, Country Club, and Bunavista areas.

Borger map

“As much damage as we have, our proactive efforts did prevent even more,” Hutchinson County officials said. — [Panhandle fires photo gallery]

The fires in Texas and Oklahoma have burned so much land that the blackened ground is visible from space. Satellite imagery captured burn scars stretching from the Texas Panhandle into western Oklahoma Wednesday afternoon.

Satellite images from Monday morning and Wednesday afternoon show burn scars in the Texas Panhandle in the wake of devastating fires. CIRA/RAMMB
Satellite shots show burn scars in the Texas Panhandle in the wake of devastating fires. CIRA/RAMMB images.

Burn scars are often a combination of burned vegetation, debris, and a scorched layer of soil. In the satellite image above, the burn scar appears as charcoal gray and black against the tan unburned ground around it.

 ~ Thanks and a tip of the hardhat to Chris and Alison.

Texas battling numerous large fires

WEDNESDAY EVENING UPDATE FROM CNN:
Fires burning in the Texas Panhandle and in Oklahoma have evacuated towns and killed at least one person. The 850,000-acre Smokehouse Creek Fire started Monday and is now 3 percent contained; it’s the second-largest fire in the state’s history.


Wildfires in the Texas panhandle are burning rapidly across drought-parched miles of grassy fuels, threatening towns and evacuating residents. How did the state’s second-largest fire ever burn to well over a half-million acres in just a couple days?

Smokehouse
On the night of February 27 strong winds pushed the Smokehouse Creek Fire across several roads in the Texas Panhandle. Texas A&M Forest Service photo.

High winds and drought, mostly, according to the National Weather Service’s Amarillo office. The East Amarillo Complex in 2006 burned over 900,000 acres — in the same general location. Samuel Scoleri, a forecaster at the NWS, told Isabella O’Malley with the Associated Press that dry winters are fairly standard in the Panhandle, but temperatures on Tuesday were in the 70s rather than the usual 50s and 60s for late February. “It kind of just feels out of the ordinary,” he said, “considering at the top of the month we had places get almost half a foot of snow down south.”

Politico reported that the largest of the fires, the Smokehouse Creek Fire, closed highways and a nuclear weapons site. The Pantex facility for assembling and disassembling the country’s nuclear arsenal shut down operations Tuesday night as fires burned near its facility 30 miles east of Amarillo. Pantex issued a statement online saying it had paused operations until further notice.

Texas Panhandle fires
Smokehouse Creek Fire 02/27/2024

The Smokehouse Creek Fire near Stinnett was first reported Monday evening;  USA Today said by Wednesday the fire had grown to about 500,000 acres — twice its estimated size on Tuesday evening — and was still at zero containment, according to the Texas A&M Forest Service.

ABC7 News reported that Texas Governor Greg Abbott announced a disaster declaration yesterday for 60 counties, including all 26 counties in the Panhandle.

Texas fire map
Texas fire map

Officials are warning those who evacuated from the town of Fritch ahead of the Smokehouse Creek Fire that destruction there is considerable. “People who live in the Fritch area are probably not going to be prepared for what they’re going to see as they pull into town,” said Deidra Thomas with the Hutchinson County Emergency Management. “There are still homes that are on fire.” The main road into the south side of Fritch is still closed.  “Right now, we can’t let you in,” she said. “It is not safe to do that.”

Texas fires 02/28/24
Wildfires northeast of Amarillo in the panhandle, 06:00 EST 02/28/24 28, 2024. The largest, the Smokehouse Creek Fire, is estimated at 500,000 acres.

The governor also directed the Texas Division of Emergency Management (TDEM) to activate emergency response resources for local firefighters battling the multiple fires. “I issued a disaster declaration today to ensure resources are deployed to areas in the Texas Panhandle,” said Abbott.

Strong winds, unseasonably high temperatures, and dry grass are fueling the fires. Hot and dry and windy conditions should continue in the region in the coming days.

FIRE DANGER: Texas A&M Forest Service
FIRE DANGER: Texas A&M Forest Service

Dry conditions and above-normal temperatures resulted in parts of the state facing increased fire risks, according to the Texas A&M Forest Service. Several wildfires across the Panhandle started on Monday, and the Forest Service responded to 13 new requests for assistance on wildfires burning nearly 80,000 acres across the state. CNN reported that the Smokehouse Creek Fire burned 500,000 acres in under 48 hours and forced evacuations in multiple counties. That’s more acres than the combined total of all Texas fires for 2023. Numerous homes on the perimeter of the town of Canadian were burned, Hemphill County Judge Lisa Johnson told The Canadian Record.

The Associated Press reported that fires tore through sparsely populated counties on the High Plains dotted with oil rigs and cattle ranches. By this morning wind speeds had decreased and the humidity has risen. Northwest winds are predicted throughout the morning, shifting to the east around 6 mph late in the afternoon, then to the south late in the day. Forecasters warned there’s also potential for wildfire fire activity in East Texas, the Rolling Plains, and western Cross Timbers, and fire conditions will likely pick up and increase again by the weekend.

There are currently 63 counties with burn bans in place.

 ~ Thanks and a tip of the hard hat to Jim, Brian, and Patrick.

Another PacifiCorp lawsuit

The federal government plans to sue PacifiCorp for nearly $1 billion in costs related to the 2020 wildfires in southern Oregon and northern California;  the company is trying to negotiate a settlement.

According to an Associated Press report, the pending lawsuits were disclosed in an annual report from the parent company, Berkshire Hathaway Energy, on Monday. The utility company has already agreed to pay hundreds of millions in lawsuits related to the 2020 fires.

Berkshire Hathaway Energy said the Department of Justice is seeking $625 million in suppression and cleanup costs that followed the Archie Creek and Susan Creek fires. Oregon’s Justice Department said it also wants $109 million in damages for those fires, and the Forest Service has asked PacifiCorp for $356 million for suppression and damages over the Slater Fire — which started in California and then burned over the state line into Oregon.

The company estimates that its utilities face at least $8 billion in claims from all the wildfire lawsuits already filed, but damages could be doubled or even tripled in some of those cases.

Other PacifiCorp lawsuits over the Labor Day 2020 fires are detailed HERE and HERE and HERE and HERE and HERE and HERE and HERE.

The PacifiCorp website says the company leads in wildfire mitigation, and its system-wide, six-state plan includes in-house emergency management and meteorology and data science teams — and features the installation of over 450 weather stations, grid hardening, fire-risk modeling software, and an “enhanced” vegetation management program.

“The safety of our employees, customers, and communities remains our top priority,” declares PacifiCorp.

Meanwhile in southeast Idaho, renewable energy developer NorthRenew Energy has sold its 300-MW-plus Arco Wind and Solar project in southeast  Idaho to PacifiCorp. This is NorthRenew’s ninth project sale since the company’s inception in 2017.

NorthRenew energy projects
NorthRenew energy projects

Renewables Now reported last week that the project in Bingham and Bonneville counties is designed with a storage capacity of more than 300 MW of wind and solar power, but could be expanded by as much as 800 MW of solar energy in the future. The project acquisition extends PacifiCorp’s diverse mix of generating resources across its system spanning the western states of Oregon, Washington, California, Utah, Idaho, and Wyoming.

Chief talks with loggers in western Oregon

U.S. Forest Service Chief Randy Moore spoke Thursday with loggers and others in forestry about forest fires, logging, and sustainability at the 86th  annual Oregon Logging Conference at the Lane County Fairgrounds in Eugene.

The Register-Guard reported that Moore gave the keynote address at the conference before taking questions from attendees, many of whom were critical of the Forest Service’s management of federal forests in Oregon. After his speech, the newspaper questioned the USFS Chief and didn’t get much for answers, which Moore is well known for. Asked about an escaped RxFire last summer east of Eugene, and another over in Grant County that resulted in the arrest and arraignment of FS burn boss Ricky Snodgrass, Moore said he’s confident the agency has the ability to managed prescribed burns.

Referring to the temporary pause in 2022 after the Calf Canyon / Hermits Peak Fire, Moore then said, “If you remember, I called a 90-day pause … And really, it was to do a check on how we were doing prescribed burning, but also to look at what has changed.”

He explained that people are “on different sides of the aisle with climate change,” and that the climate is different today than what it has been. “And because it’s different it’s creating conditions that we have never seen before, particularly as it relates to fire behavior. And so, as we look at the prescribed burning, we do have the ability.”

Regarding the budget, the chief said, “Going in now, of course, you know, we don’t have a budget. The federal government doesn’t have a budget. Our expectation is to have the same level of firefighters we had last year. And so, we’re looking at roughly 11,700 firefighters…. Now, with an uncertainty around budget, could that be potentially compromised? Of course. We also have a housing issue, a mental health issue, with our firefighters. So, all of that plays into whether we’ll be able to recruit and retain firefighters.”

Randy MooreAgriculture Secretary Tom Vilsack back in June 2021 announced that Randy Moore would serve as the 20th Forest Service Chief. “Randy Moore has been a catalyst for change and creativity in carrying out the Forest Service’s mission to sustain the health, diversity and productivity of the nation’s forests,” said Vilsack. A year later in front of the Senate Appropriations Committee, Moore said the 2022 fire staffing was near 90 percent, but he acknowledged that the agency in some areas was staffed at about 50 percent.

Moore was warning a week ago that the agency faces budget cuts that could affect thousands of employees. He sent an all-employee letter noting that funding gaps will affect salaries and information technology, among other things.

He noted a 5 percent cost of living increase but said it will come out of available funds. He had no details on which part of the agency’s budget will be cut for the new fiscal year, but warned that the USDA is developing budget cut guidelines.

Jack Thomas with Jim Lyons in northeast Oregon's Eagle Cap Wilderness.
Jack Thomas with Jim Lyons in northeast Oregon’s Eagle Cap Wilderness.

Moore was also asked about the planned update to the Northwest Forest Plan, which was developed by Jack Ward Thomas and a small army of experts back in the early 1990s. The comprehensive plan was accompanied by a regional monitoring program and ongoing research, and became a multi-agency effort to conserve biodiversity, especially including old-growth forests, the  northern spotted owl and marbled murrelet, and other species associated with older forests on federal lands in western Washington and Oregon and northwest  California. It was also designed to protect salmon habitat and to provide forest products for timber-dependent economies. The NWFP was envisioned to be a 100-year plan with the flexibility to adapt to new conditions, threats, and knowledge — of which there have been many.

Asked what changes Oregonians might expect in the forthcoming update to the Northwest Forest Plan, Moore said, “I think that’s to be discovered. I think that we need to sit down and have public meetings. We need to look at what are the expectations that our publics are having for their national forests and then how can we provide that within the context of the laws that guide us.”

 

New arduous medical standards process this year

In 2024 USFS employees with arduous quals will do the arduous exam. Firefighters with moderate or light duty will have the OF 178 exam if they mark one box in Part A or three in Part B. If you have questions you can email the help desk at SM.FS.mqp_emedical@usda.gov

Arduous Medical Exam (AME) or Self-Certification or (HSQ)

What is the difference between the AMP and the HSQ?

      • The Arduous Medical Process is for those taking the arduous WCT.
      • The HSQ is for those employees taking the moderate and light WCTs.

What about the AMP Exam (AME) and Self Certification?

      • eMedical AMP runs on a 3-year cycle for employees.
      • Year one is the AME: a thorough health screening questionnaire followed by a physical exam with a medical provider. The exam results are reviewed by a USFS Medical Officer (RMO) before the employee can get medical clearance to take the WCT.
      • Years 2 and 3 are the self-certification process, which requires a shorter screening questionnaire plus a blood pressure check by an EMT or other qualified individual. The results are reviewed by HSQC’s and, based on the answers, may be routed to the RMO or cleared to the WCT.

NOTE that this is a gradual rollout over the next few years, not just in 2024 and not all regions are shifting the AMP at the same time. Here is the rollout schedule (subject to change):

schedule

      • Those with arduous qualifications who have not completed the arduous process yet will continue using the current system with the HSQ, alongside all moderate and light quals.
      • In those areas that are implementing the AMP, Acuity International will  assist with scheduling and payment for exams, at the employee’s request. This is a completely optional service.

The NWCG Risk Management Committee provides interagency national leadership in firefighter risk management, health, and safety. The Federal Interagency Wildland Firefighter Medical Standards establish minimum medical fitness for arduous duty. Light or moderate duty firefighters may be required to do a medical screening process.

The USFS uses Federal Interagency Medical Standards for employees who engage in firefighting duties.

Firefighters with arduous duty quals must complete a physical exam every three years, and it is required before that year’s work capacity test.

You must fill out a medical history form in eMedical and then you can schedule your exam with your doctor; your supervisor can initiate this for you. If you are approaching three years since your last exam, you should get started at least 45 days before your work capacity test. You can log into eMedical and request a packet.

USDA Forest Service

Annual Self-Certification

A questionnaire and blood pressure check are required each year between your in-person exams. The self-certification form FS-5100-42 is not the same as the HSQ/OF-178. It can also be completed in the eMedical system.

Details on additional exam requirements are posted [HERE].

  • eMedical Public Site for Temporary, AD, and new employees (available through ConnectHR) — this requires a username and password.

Medical Provider Documents (ALL PDF)