Wildfire news, September 30, 2008

Think tank: reducing bureaucracy could reduce fire risk

From npca.org

Federal mismanagement of U.S. forests has increased the number, size and cost of wildfires over the past decade. Overcrowding has left 60 percent of national forest land facing abnormal fire hazards. The culprit: bureaucratic paralysis — due in part to judges or politicians beholden to environmental lobbyists overriding the decisions of professional foresters, says the National Center for Policy Analysis (NCPA).

For instance:

 

  • When a wildfire struck Storrie, Calif., in August 2000, more than 55,000 acres burned, including 28,000 acres in the Plumas National Forest, 27,000 acres in the Lassen National Forest and 3,200 acres of private forestland.
  • Following the fire, only 181 of more than 28,000 acres in the Plumas National Forest were replanted; in the Lassen National Forest, only 1,206 acres were cleared and 230 acres replanted.
  • By contrast, on the privately owned land, forest managers reduced wildfire by removing 30,633 tons of dry material, enough to fuel 3,600 homes for a year.
  • They harvested enough larger dead trees to build 4,300 homes.
  • They spent millions of dollars to reforest burned land and increase the number of different tree species.

Even though federal legislation has specifically allowed the forest service to log to reduce fire risk, environmentalists’ lawsuits have delayed those plans. Instead, the government should introduce market competition in the management of the nation’s forests, concludes NCPA.

Private forest owners and managers would have the incentive to minimize wildfires and improve forest health. Unhindered by bureaucratic federal rules, they would be better able to prevent and treat infestations that kill forests, says the NCPA

Oregon: Inquiry into escaped prescribed fire

From the Bend Bulletin:

U.S. Forest Service officials from Oregon and the regional office will begin investigating today why a prescribed fire outside of Camp Sherman burned out of control, jumping from a 31-acre planned burn Wednesday to the now-1,150-acre Wizard Fire.

“It’s obvious that things did not go as planned, so we’ll be conducting a review,” said Bill Anthony, district ranger for the Sisters Ranger District.

No one wants controlled burns to escape, he said, and fire managers with the Forest Service are concerned when one does.

“We’re going to step back and take a good, hard look at why this fire escaped our control,” Anthony said, “and come to an understanding about what procedures we need to change and fix.”

Agency officials said the problem didn’t stem from the burn itself, but from the monitoring period after the prescribed fire had burned down a bit.

“The first day after the burn the winds picked up, and we didn’t pick (the new fire) up during our patrol procedures, and it escaped,” Anthony said.

After controlled burns, staff are supposed to patrol or monitor the areas by walking or driving the perimeter of a fire.

“They survey the perimeter of the fire, look into it to make sure nothing is jeopardizing the ability to keep the burn within its perimeter,” Anthony said. “Something did not happen (after last week’s fire), and we have to figure out why.”

He said that he did not yet have the whole story about what had occurred during the patrol period, and would wait for the review, which will be conducted by people from the Forest Service’s Region 6 district office, which includes Washington and Oregon, other national forests in Oregon as well as local agency staffers, to discuss what did or didn’t happen and how to fix it.

AD Firefighter Association to shut down

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After having been virtually invisible for the last year or two, the AD Firefighter Association will cease to exist after September 30, 2009, according to their web site:

The ADFA Board held its annual meeting on August 24, 2008 in Boise, ID and all members present agreed to implement the course of action as outlined below:

Background

One of ADFA’s original goals was to insure ADs received equal pay for equal work as compared to Agency employees and contractors. Although good work has been done in the past and overall rates of pay have increased, the inequity still exists given there is no overtime pay and there is no hazard pay those who qualify for it.

Another goal was for ADs to be able to pay into social security, thereby receiving credit for the appropriate amount of “quarters” during the work periods each year.

It is clear to the board that these are legal issues and require addressing by Congress to either modify the AD enabling legislation or to replace it and to allow social security credit or not. ADFA does not have the financial resources to hire the proper legal counsel and/or lobbyists to further our cause in these endeavors.

The Board further recognizes that for whatever reason the Forest Service leadership is unwilling and or unable to address these issues either by management or through their legislative affairs staff. It is not in their best interest to pay fairly when they can continue the current “cost-cutting” strategy of paying AD’s poorly! Present AD employees are not willing to not step up to the plate and make it difficult for the Forest Service by not staffing unable to fill positions.

There is an increasing number of crews, single resources, equipment, and other personnel hired each year under contract, through states or municipal fire agencies at higher rates of pay, or through the DOI as a rehired annuitant when PL-4 is reached. It is also quite evident that the Forest Service lacks the initiative or desire to implement Emergency Annuitant Rehire authority. They have elected to continue to pay substandard AD rates.

Finally, we have new members signing up but not paying dues, we have old members who pay dues but would rather not participate in ADFA management or issues, and we have members who are getting older and are not taking AD assignments. A majority of complaints received by board members are coming from those at the AD-K and above level rather than from the “ground pounder level.”

Board Decision

For all the reasons mentioned above in the background information, the Board has decided:

  • No membership or renewal dues will be accepted after October 1, 2008
  • The website will be shut down effective April 1, 2009
  • All financial activities will be wrapped up on or before September 30, 2009
  • After discussion with our legal counsel, the AD Firefighter Organization will sunset on September 30, 2009.

San Diego County at-risk areas

San Diego County is pretty good at identifying areas that are most at risk from wildland fire. Maybe one day the county will be better prepared to handle a fire after it breaks out. They are very lucky to have access to the resources of the Cleveland National Forest and CalFire.

An excerpt from the San Diego Union-Tribune:

Last year, a fire task force created maps that pinpointed the areas of the county most vulnerable to infernos. Not long after, two of the October firestorm’s largest blazes – Witch Creek and Harris – burned in those exact areas.

Now the task force has updated its maps to show three regions where the next massive blazes are most likely to hit.

The projections aren’t meant to scare residents or suggest imminent danger, but rather to identify areas where federal and state money should be spent on protective projects such as forest thinning and building new firebreaks.

The bottom line is that although it seems San Diego County has burned and burned this decade, there are major swaths of land that haven’t been touched in decades – in some cases more than 50 years.

The three regions identified on the updated maps are:

A 170,000-acre area stretching west from Mount Laguna to the outskirts of Spring Valley and El Cajon. The path of a fire there could mirror the Laguna fire of 1970, which at 180,000 acres stood as the second-largest ever to hit the state until 2003’s Cedar fire.

A 124,000-acre area stretching from the south side of Palomar Mountain toward Valley Center, Rainbow and Bonsall.

A 32,000-acre area encompassing Rancho Santa Fe and touching parts of such communities as Rancho Peñasquitos, Fairbanks Ranch, Olivenhain, Del Dios and 4S Ranch.

Other areas of concern are the east and north sides of Palomar Mountain, the greater Julian area and 214,000 acres in the sparsely populated southeastern part of the county that includes the communities of Jacumba, Boulevard and Buckman Springs.

The Cedar fire destroyed hundreds of homes south of Julian, but the focus now is on a 6,000-acre area mainly to the north and east of the town.

The projections are based primarily on the age and density of brush in an area, as well as geographic characteristics and proximity to population centers. They assume Santa Ana wind conditions similar to those that existed in October 2003 and 2007.

The mapping is done by the Forest Area Safety Task Force, a collection of more than 80 federal, state and local agencies created in 2002 whose responsibility is making the county safer from wildfires.

Three MTDC publications

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There are three fairly new Missoula Technology and Development Center publications that could be of interest to wildland firefighters:

1. Evaluation of Affordable Battery-Operated Weather Stations for Remote Sites.

The Missoula Technology and Development Center evaluated three battery-operated weather stations costing from $985 to $1,775. The stations were the HOBO Micro Station (Model No. H21-002), the WatchDog 700, and the Vantage Pro (Model No. 6150). Data could be downloaded from the HOBO Micro Station and the WatchDog 700 using hand-held devices such as a Palm personal digital assistant. The Vantage Pro’s external wireless console can be located in a building that allows data to be viewed and downloaded. These are convenient features when stations are in remote locations.

2. Felling Hazard Trees With Explosives.

This tech tip describes how to use explosives to fell trees that are too hazardous to be felled with saws. Trees felled with explosives have jagged stumps rather than the artificially flat stumps left by a saw. Jagged stumps have a more natural appearance, which can be an advantage in wilderness settings. In the Forest Service, blasters not only need to be certified to work with explosives, but they must have a “Hazard Trees” endorsement to fell trees with explosives.

3. Hydration Strategies for Firefighters.

This tech tip discusses the importance of firefighters drinking 1quart of water per hour to stay hydrated during hard work. Recent research has shown that firefighters stayed hydrated and worked effectively whether they used water bottles or the newer sipping hydration systems with reservoirs and drinking tubes. Both water bottles and sipping hydration systems require periodic cleaning to remove microbial films. About one-third to half of the fluids firefighters drink each day should be carbohydrate/electrolyte sports drinks. These flavored drinks help firefighters consume enough fluid to stay hydrated and replace electrolytes lost in sweat and urine. Sports drinks are best stored in water bottles that are easier to clean regularly than the sipping hydration systems.

If you need a user name and password, look HERE. Don’t ask me why they require them, but post them on a public web page.

Thanks, Dick, for the tip.

Wildfire news, September 27, 2008

California reorganizes state emergency services

According to the AP:

A new law will combine two California emergency response offices into one cabinet-level agency to deal with wildfires, earthquakes, floods and other disasters that annually test the state.

Gov. Arnold Schwarzenegger said Saturday that merging the Governor’s Office of Emergency Services and the Office of Homeland Security will improve the state’s ability to respond to emergencies and natural disasters.

He said the new California Emergency Management Agency will be more streamlined and efficient. But legislative analysts say it isn’t likely to save much money immediately because administrative savings will be offset by merger costs.

Fire budget bill sent to President

The bill that includes an additional $910 million in emergency federal funding for wildland fire has been approved by both the house and the senate and has been sent to the President.

According to a press release from Senator Dianne Feinstein from California:

The fire budget bill sent to President Bush includes $610 million for fighting fires the rest of the year, $175 million to reduce fire fuels by clearing dead forest growth, and $100 million for lands restoration. 

Feinstein said the bill includes mandates for the federal government to fully staff all firefighting jobs in California, where 8.5 percent of those 4,432 positions are currently vacant.

The bill would also require the Defense Department to restore two C-130H fire tankers to the duty roster at the Naval Air Station at Point Mugu, so they can be used to fight fires quickly. Existing planes stationed there have inoperative fire equipment, and Feinstein says the federal government has been too slow to replace them.

California: Fire damages arboretum in Redding

Redding has certainly had their share of fires, both in and around the city this summer. From redding.com:

Leaves are brown, bark is black and dirt is sooty or ashen-gray. Those aren’t the typical fall colors found at McConnell Arboretum & Botanical Gardens in Redding, but they’re part of the picture this year. 

A wildfire sprang to life Aug. 26 on Sulphur Creek Hill, hopped over North Market Street and raced through part of the arboretum at Turtle Bay Exploration Park. Some plants were incinerated, others scorched and a few squashed by fire-fighting equipment.

Wind pushed the 130-acre fire, which came within 20 yards of the Sundial Bridge, onto the northwest side of the arboretum. Firefighters responded quickly and most of the arboretum didn’t burn. Turtle Bay officials say 20 percent of the developed gardens were damaged and approximately a third of the arboretum’s natural oak woodland burned.

“It could have been so much worse,” said Lisa Endicott, horticulture manager at Turtle Bay. “It could have taken the whole savannah. It could have taken all of the gardens.”

The 200-acre arboretum is a natural area along the Sacramento River filled with oaks, cottonwoods, manzanita and other native plants. Fenced within the arboretum are the botanical gardens, which require admission to view. They include California natives; hardy plants from Chile, Australia, South Africa and other countries; and other plants in display gardens.

Oregon: Update on Wizard escaped fire

An excerpt from kohd.com

…The fire is estimated at 200 to 250 acres, but it’s difficult for fire crews to get an exact size because of all the smoke in the air. In the campgrounds campers didn’t notice any air quality changes until 24 hours after the fire broke out. “We thought the fire was out, it was such a nice morning everything was clear,” said Brick. 

By Friday afternoon the US Forest Service says the fire is about 15 percent contained. Some are wondering why a controlled burn would be scheduled during fire season. The Forest Service says it does controlled burns in the fall in areas already treated. This particular fire started in an area treated three times before in the past 20 years. it was considered a managable risk. “From a technical standpoint it was not a very complex burn and the perscribed burn on it actually got pulled off very successfully on Wednesday afternoon. The escape happened the next day when it was really in patrol status when it escpaed,” said Anthony.

The Forest Service says it’ll do a thorough review to prevent another controlled burn from jumping again.

The fires next time

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From New West

Wildland Fire Conference
The Fires Next Time

By Scott McMillion, 9-26-08

Think about wildfire in the West and it’s hard to picture a rosy future, except for the sunsets bleeding through the smoke.

Climate change is creating longer, hotter, more explosive burning seasons, while more and more homes sprout on flammable ground. Meanwhile, the pool of firefighting talent keeps getting smaller: there are fewer trained crews, air tankers and helicopters available than there were 20 years ago. Complicated and sometimes contradictory federal policies make it difficult for the next generation of firefighters to get the training and experience they need.

And for those who do meet the requirements for this dirty and dangerous work, there’s a new specter searing the mind of fire bosses: criminal prosecution if something goes wrong and firefighters are hurt or killed.

While fire is increasingly – and properly – understood as a necessary part of many functioning ecosystems, controlled burning is a complicated and sometimes dangerous process. Fire managers often are reluctant to start fires or let natural fires burn, because an escape could leave their careers in ashes, or at least well toasted.

Those were some of the topics outlined this week at a four-day conference in Jackson, Wyoming, sponsored by the International Association of Wildland Fire and the National Park Service, an event that drew about 400 firefighters, scientists and officials from land management agencies. While most are from the United States, some came from as far as Australia, Japan and Portugal.

The focus of the conference was the 20th anniversary of the 1988 fires in Yellowstone National Park, which many described as the onset of a new era in firefighting and fire management.

“Nature is not always a gentle hostess,” recalled Bob Barbee, the park’s superintendent at the time. He called the fires of that summer “unpredictable, unpreventable, uncontrollable and finally unimaginable.”

Fires that year scorched 1.4 million acres in and around the park, while torching another million acres in other places around the West.“It was the first time in my career I saw the world’s best firefighters get their butts kicked,” said Rex Mann, a planner in the Yellowstone firefighting efforts. The fires “were beasts the like of which we’d never seen before.”

But the beasts still roar. Fires of similar intensity have erupted across the West over the past two decades, from Colorado to California, from Arizona to Montana. Today’s rookie firefighters are seeing things that veterans of previous generations thought they’d never encounter. And the monsters could grow even bigger.

“We continue to exceed our previous standards, in terms of unbelievability, in fire behavior,” said Steve Frye, a former commander of an elite Type I firefighting team.

If the climate scientists are right – there were a number of them here, and they all had a similar message – future firefighting will require two times the muscle and machinery just to wrestle fires down to current levels, Frye said. If the tools and people materialize, they won’t be cheap. Firefighting has often cost the U.S. Forest Service more than $1 billion a season in recent years, draining money from other programs.

And some fires will escape no matter what people throw at them. It is “reasonable to consider” fires of three million acres to nine million acres in the northern Rockies if the right conditions arise, according to George Weldon, deputy regional director for fire for region one of the Forest Service, headquartered in Missoula.

He called for agencies and the public to learn to live with fire. “The fires are not the problem,” he said. “The problem is the effect of the fires on the people.” Those effects can include sick-making smoke, travel restrictions, lost property, injury and, occasionally, death.

So, what can be done?

Weldon predicted that land managers will rely increasingly on planned or “prescribed” fire as a tool that can sap the punch from inevitable wildfire. Chainsaws won’t do the trick, at least not everywhere. “The Forest Service will not log our way out of the issue we’re in,” he said. “Our primary tool is going to be fire.”

But using fire, instead of fighting it, won’t be easy, especially if the woods become even more flammable. There is resistance both from the public and from people inside government. This year, the federal government oversaw 211,000 acres of prescribed burns, according to Tom Nichols, chief of fire and aviation for the National Park Service. But there were 4.6 million acres of wildfires.

Aside from the technical challenges, there is even disagreement over what to label a fire you aren’t trying to put out. The “let burn” label still rankles many in the Park Service. A “wildland fire use fire” is unwieldy and confuses the public. And a new term, “appropriate management response,” while it has the support of some scientists and green groups, sounds even more bureaucratic.

At the simplest level, the latter term means officials will look a fire over, then decide whether to fight it or monitor it, relying on a set of preset parameters. The response will depend on circumstances like topography, weather and potential threats. But even that process can suffer from political interference.

This year, when thousands of fires erupted in California, “prescribed fire was out the window,” Nichols said.

Other areas of government harbor inconsistencies as well. The Occupational Safety and Health Administration (OSHA) interprets the law to mean everybody is warranted a safe workplace, according to Assistant U.S. Attorney and former firefighter Mike Johns. Yet the Forest Service grants firefighters hazard pay, which implies acceptance of danger.

Even the Department of Justice is divided. Lawyers working on civil cases see firefighting safety rules as “guidelines” while criminal lawyers cited those same rules when they filed manslaughter charges in the wake of the 2001 Thirtymile Fire in Washington. “There’s a huge disconnect in the legal environment we’re currently dealing with,” Johns said. The Thirtymile charges were later reduced to misdemeanors, but the incident cast a pall over the fire community.

“Firefighters are starting to wonder if their agencies are willing to back them up if something goes wrong,” Johns said.

Dick Mangan, past president of the wildland fire association and a firefighter for more than 30 years, said one third of that group’s members said they would be reluctant to take on some supervisory roles in the wake of the criminal charges.

“We’re having a hard time getting people to take crews out,” he said. “We’re on a dangerous path here. I don’t like the future, guys. I don’t think it’s that bright right now.”