In the first two in a series of 12 videos produced by the Santa Fe National Forest in Northern New Mexico, Fuels Program Manager Dennis Carril discusses the inevitability of vegetation fires and how fuel, standing trees and deep layers of litter, can build up as a result of fire exclusion. Each video is less than three minutes long.
The videos are “unlisted” on YouTube, however they have been promoted on Twitter by @SantafeNF and @DOIWildlandFire.
At least not when it is used to reduce a fire hazard
This image posted on Twitter by the California Department of Forestry and Fire Protection, CAL FIRE, reminded me of when I was involved with a ball and chain operation one winter on the Sitton Peak project on the Cleveland National Forest in Southern California in the early 1970s.
The objective is to rip out or crush brush in order to reduce the wildfire hazard. It can be used to create a fuel break in lighter brush, or knock down heavier brush to make it easier and safer to conduct a prescribed fire.
When I was the contracting officer’s representative (COR) on the project a large dozer pulled about 100 to 200 feet of anchor chain that weighed 40 to 80 pounds per link. At the far end of the chain was a Navy surplus steel ball, a float, about five or six feet in diameter, that had been used with an anti-submarine net. The float was designed to support a net made of steel cable that was stretched across the mouth of a harbour or a strait for protection against submarines. A seven-mile long net was in place across the entrance to San Francisco Bay on December 7, 1941.
When the system was used on the Sitton Peak project we found that the ball needed to be heavier, so we filled it with water. That didn’t last long because the ball led a hard life, constantly being dragged across the ground and over rocks. The water leaked out through gouges in the steel. We later experimented with other materials inside the ball, including gravel, that were retained for a longer period of time.
Landscape architects liked the appearance of a chained fuel break better than those constructed by a dozer blade because it left some vegetation and a feathered edge — a more natural shape with fewer straight lines. As the dozer pulled the assembly, the chain encountered variable resistance and would temporarily get hung up on a rock or a heavy brush patch. If the dozer was driving along a ridge top, this would cause the ball to traverse up and down the slope, leaving a zig-zag or irregular edge.
When used on flat ground, the ball is positioned and then the dozer drives in circles around it.
With the brush crushed, close to the ground, and later dried out, it can then be treated with prescribed fire that burns less intensely than standing live brush in the summer.
A ball and chain is not exactly a light-hand-on-the-land system. There is serious soil and vegetation disturbance, so before considering the method, any sensitive plants, animals, and artifacts need to be carefully evaluated.
Back in 2009 I wrote about a misadventure that involved the dozer we used on the Sitton Peak project. It became seriously stuck in mud while “walking” back from the project on a dirt road. Four trucks that came to rescue the dozer also got stuck in the same area. It was one of those incidents where rescuers became victims. The article has photos I took of the FUBAR incident.
In light of the article posted earlier today reporting on Secretary Ryan Zinke’s order for the Department of the Interior to be more aggressive about conducting fuel treatment activities to better protect facilities from burning in a wildfire, this video is very appropriate.
Nobody knows more than Dr. Jack Cohen about why and how structures burn. He also knows what homeowners can do to make their homes fire resistant.
Before recently retiring, Dr. Cohen was a Fire Science Researcher with the U.S. Forest Service.
The directive introduces a political element to wildland fire management
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.
The agency is proposing to develop two Programmatic Environmental Impact Statements for BLM lands in the states of Idaho, Oregon, Nevada, California, Utah, and Washington. One will cover the construction of fuel breaks while the other is for fuels reduction and rangeland restoration.
Now that they have a schedule for public meetings which runs through February 15, the deadline for comments has been extended to February 28.
The blanket approval will mean that individual landscape-scale fuel breaks and fuel reduction proposals will only need minor additional environmental reviews to proceed.
Fuel breaks are intended to interrupt the continuity of vegetation making it easier to control or stop the spread of wildfires. They can be created manually by hand crews and mechanized equipment, or through the use of herbicides. There is no guarantee of success since wind-blown burning embers can be lofted hundreds or thousands of feet ahead of a flaming front, crossing the breaks.