Wildfire news, October 21, 2008

Man charged with starting 75,000 acre fire

From the Duluth News Tribune

A 64-year-old Washington, D.C., man has been indicted for allowing his campfire on Ham Lake to blow out of control on a windy May day in 2007, triggering Minnesota’s largest and most expensive forest fire in 80 years. 

Stephen George Posniak was indicted Monday by a grand jury in federal court in Minneapolis, some 18 months after the fire raged.

The indictment alleges that on May 5, 2007, Posniak allowed a fire of paper trash and other items to get out of control at his Ham Lake campsite in the Superior National Forest, just outside the Boundary Waters Canoe Area Wilderness.

The campfire spurred a wildfire that burned across 75,000 acres along the Gunflint Trail in Minnesota and Ontario, cost $11 million to battle and destroyed 150 buildings worth millions of dollars. No one was injured.

Posniak is charged with one count of setting timber afire, one count of leaving a fire unattended and unextinguished and one count of giving false information to a U.S. Forest Service law enforcement officer. The indictment says Posniak told officers he was camped on Cross Bay Lake, not Ham Lake, the morning of May 5.

The indictment claims Posniak told officers that he came across the already-started fire when he canoed across Ham Lake.

If convicted, he faces a potential penalty of five years in prison on the first felony count of setting timber afire and six months each for the other misdemeanor counts.

Senator Craig questions study about effects of grazing on fires

On September 6 Wildfire Today covered the report about the effects of grazing on wildland fires. Here is an excerpt from our coverage of that report:

Fire modeling revealed that grazing in grassland vegetation can reduce surface rate of spread and fire-line intensity to a greater extent than in shrubland types. Under extreme fire conditions (low fuel moisture, high temperatures, and gusty winds), grazing applied at moderate utilization levels has limited or negligible effects on fire behavior. However, when weather and fuel-moisture conditions are less extreme, grazing may reduce the rate of spread and intensity of fires allowing for patchy burns with low levels of fuel consumption. 

Senator Larry Craig, from Idaho, questions some of the conclusions in that report. Here is an excerpt from an article in the Times-News:

Years ago, Larry Craig was among a group of ranchers who regularly improvised putting out fires that overtook their land. 

“The moment a fire struck we went to put it out. Very often we had the fires out before the BLM ever got there,” Idaho’s U.S. Senator said. “That doesn’t happen today. It’s almost against the law.”

Such first-hand experiences have remained etched in Craig’s mind – and reinforce his skepticism of grazing restrictions, critics who say ranchers destroy land and the diminished role of ranchers in firefighting.

During a recent interview in his Washington, D.C office, Craig questioned the conclusions of a new report that found restrictions on cattle grazing in the Jarbidge area didn’t really contribute to the massive, 600,000-acre Murphy Complex Fire in 2007. The report was compiled by a team from the Bureau of Land Management, University of Idaho and other state and federal researchers.

He agrees the liability issues with having ranchers participating need to be heeded. But he noted advantages to having those ranchers and expanded grazing. He said grazing could have decreased the extent of burning of riparian areas – often an eco-friendly interface between land and streams that provides wildlife habitat.

“Would grazing have helped that? Changed that scenario? More than likely it would’ve helped it some,” Craig said, noting the lands take much longer than open space to recover. “If you use it responsibly, grazing is a substantial component in controlling the fuel loads in upland grazing lands that the state of Idaho is so well known for.”

The study, released last month, found that any effect grazing, or the lack of it, had on the fire was far overshadowed by the extreme temperatures and other weather factors at the time. But targeted grazing could have the potential to affect fire behavior in “less intense” conditions and should be investigated further as another fire management tool, according to the report.

Craig, who noted he’s observed first-hand range fires since he was a boy, said he found the report’s conclusions on grazing “curious.”

“While the study said grazing was a piece of the action they gave higher credit to all these other elements,” he said. “What I look at in fighting fires and range management is, can you put it out once it starts? Are you capable for putting it out once you’ve gained control?”

Senator Craig is not running for re-election this year.

9% of homes are rebuilt after San Diego County fires

Here is an excerpt from an article in the San Diego Union-Tribune:

Among the 1,646 homes destroyed in last year’s firestorms, only 9 percent – 150 – have been rebuilt. Most property owners are still suffering the stress of insurance negotiations, finding a reputable contractor and pulling together enough money to replace their homes. 

Some people were so underinsured that they are selling their properties, as are older residents who aren’t up to starting over.

This story of slow, difficult steps is told by families throughout Fallbrook, Bonsall, Rainbow, Ramona, Indian reservations, Escondido, Poway, Rancho Bernardo, Dulzura and Potrero.

If history is any guide, these wildfire victims are in for a long haul.

The last building permit issued at the fire recovery center in Scripps Ranch, which was ravaged by the Cedar fire in 2003, was in September 2007, one month before the Guejito/Witch Creek, Harris, Poomacha, Rice Canyon and Horno fires rolled across the county.

“If anything, things may be slower than Scripps Ranch,” said Thinh Tran, a San Diego city building plan review specialist.

Wildfire recovery officials attribute the pace to the vast number of underinsured homeowners.

“There are people lacking $200,000 to $300,000 to rebuild,” said Bonnie Fry, director of the Ramona Fire Recovery Center.

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