Congressmen hold hearing about Lassen National Park’s Reading Fire

Reading Fire Lassen National Park
Reading Fire, August 7, 2012. Credit: Lassen NPS

Two Congressmen held an informal hearing in Sacramento on Wednesday to hear concerns about the Reading Fire that started in Lassen Volcanic National Park in northern California. The fire was not aggressively suppressed, and later escaped the park and burned 11,071 acres of US Forest Service land and 75 acres of privately owned land outside the boundaries.

Reading Fire, final perimeter
Final perimeter (in red) of the Reading Fire. The green line is the boundary of Lassen Volcanic National Park.

It started from lightning on July 23 and after about two weeks was only 95 acres while being managed for multiple objectives as a “fire for resource benefits”. Fire managers established a 700-acre box in which they intended to contain the fire by taking suppression action as needed to keep it from crossing the lines drawn on a map.

Reading Fire acres through August 12
Size of the Reading Fire through August 12

They were unsuccessful, and on August 6 it moved out of the park, ultimately burning 28,079 acres by the time it was contained on August 21. By August 23 the National Park Service had spent $15,875,495 observing, managing, and later suppressing the fire.

Some of the local residents said at the hearing that with the decline of the timber industry they now rely heavily on tourism. According to their testimony the fire had a negative impact on some of the local businesses during a critical time of the year for their revenue.

The list of government officials that testified at the hearing included:

  • U.S. representatives Wally Herger, R-Chico, and Tom McClintock, R-Granite Bay
  • Bill Kaage, the park service’s chief of the Branch of Wildland Fire
  • Andy McMurry, CAL FIRE’s statewide deputy director
  • Joseph Millar, director of Fire and Aviation Management for the US Forest Service’s Pacific Southwest Region
  • Rick Kyle, Shasta County Fire Warden
  • Steve Fitch, retired Forest Supervisor of the Shasta-Trinity National Forest

According to the Associated Press, Rep. Herger said:

The officials responsible for allowing the fire to burn during “a terrible fire season” should be removed and changes made to the national policy that uses managed wildfires as a tool to clear out forests and improve wildlife habitat.

Mr. Millar said in the hearing that the US Forest Service required all of their fires be aggressively suppressed last summer due to the severity of the fire season. However, the real reason may have been that the agency ran out of enough money to manage limited suppression fires for weeks or months.

CAL FIRE’s Andy McMurry testified that if the fire had started on state-protected lands they would have attempted to put it out immediately.

Retired Forest Supervisor Steve Fitch had earlier blasted the National Park Service for not aggressively suppressing the fire, saying:

I can’t believe they went ahead with letting a fire burn for the ecosystem’s benefit in a season that, for the entire nation, is record dry.

Of course with the benefit of hindsight, a person could assume that if the NPS had suppressed the fire when it was 1/4 acre, or two weeks later when it was 95 acres, it would not have spread outside the park and cost the taxpayers $25 million dollars, and would not have impacted the revenue the local businesses depend on in the summer.

The National Park Service has a mixed record when it comes to accepting accountability for serious mistakes. The Superintendent of Mount Rushmore National Memorial absolutely refused to do so in 2009 when protesters easily cruised through inadequate security measures to hang a huge banner over the sculpture. Superintendent Gerard Baker said:

Is it too bad it happened? Yes. Do I think it was my responsibility? Absolutely not. We did everything proper.

A few months later on the other hand, the acting Superintendent of Yosemite National Park Dave Uberuaga took full responsibility for the planned 90-acre prescribed fire that escaped and became the 7,425-acre Big Meadow fire:

I take full responsibility…I have apologized to the communities. I regret that we had to evacuate them. And I regret the situation we find ourselves in. Still, prescribed fire is a necessary tool in the park.

According to the Record-Searchlight, Lassen National Volcanic Park superintendent Darlene Koontz said in August that her agency apologizes for the “impacts” caused by the Reading fire.

NPS spokesperson Roberta D’Amico told Wildfire Today that the National Park Service has commissioned an interagency investigation which should be complete by mid-November. We will be anxious to see if the report concludes that the agency “did everything proper” in managing the Reading fire.


Thanks go out to Kelly

Texas legislature holds hearing on wildfire preparedness

Lawmakers in Texas, looking back at the 26,000 fires that have burned 3,900,000 acres since December 2010, are asking questions. The Senate Committee on Transportation and Homeland Security held a hearing on Tuesday in which Tom Boggus, director of the Texas Forest Service, testified that the annual grants (approved by the legislature and signed by the governor) to volunteer firefighters have fallen from $25 million in 2009 to $7 million today. Boggus said the volunteers, who suppress most of the wildfires in the state, have still been receiving funds for training and personal protective equipment, but the largest negative impact has been for equipment — fire engines, maintenance, tires, hose, and pumps.

Many of the rural fire departments have little or no reliable funding and depend on bake sales, grants, or donations to buy fire trucks and personal protective equipment for the volunteers so that they can protect the state’s citizens. Last year on their Facebook page the Texas Forest Service asked the residents of the state to donate to their local fire departments.

Congressional committee holds hearing about federal response to Texas fires

US Representative Michael McCaul at committee hearing
U.S. Representative Michael McCaul at the Committee hearing. Photo: Alberto Martinez, American-Statesman

On Monday, October 17, 2011 a subcommittee of the House of Representatives’ Homeland Security committee held a field hearing in Austin entitled “Texas Wildfire Review: Did Bureaucracy Prevent a Timely Response?” The hearing was held in response to the loud complaints from Texas politicians that the federal government has not been providing enough support in dollars and firefighting resources to assist them in suppressing the numerous wildfires that have been occurring in the state since December, 2010.

The hearing was focused on speeding up the process of obtaining firefighting resources from the U. S. Forest Service and financial help from the Federal Emergency Management Administration. Texas Governor Rick Perry has slammed the federal government for deficit spending and has talked about Texas seceding from the United States, but he is seeking more than $200 million from the U.S. government to offset some of the $304 million the state has spent on wildfire suppression. Meanwhile Texas reduced the budget of the state’s wildland firefighting agency by 29 percent for the fiscal year that began in September.

Over the past several weeks there has been a lot of criticism that the USFS should have had more air tankers prepositioned in Texas, and the DC-10 Very Large Air Tanker has been a magnet for attention. When it was deployed to the state it had been working non-stop on fires in California and other states and the flight crew had bumped up against their mandatory days off. When it arrived, the aircraft had to sit for two days while the crew rested and a retardant plant was being assembled. There were complaints that the aircraft should have been able to begin working on fires immediately upon arrival.

But the DC-10, which delivered 280,000 gallons of retardant in 35 drops on fires in Texas, is just one air tanker and does not have any magical powers. Sure, it carries 11,600 gallons of retardant, four to five times more than conventional “large” air tankers that hold 2,200 to 3,000 gallons, but no single air tanker, no matter how big, could have prevented all of the damage from wildfires that Texas has been experiencing. As I’ve said many times before, aircraft do not put out fires. As long as the wind is not too strong, they can slow fires down enough to allow firefighters on the ground to put them out. It’s one tool in the tool box. Now that the U. S. Forest Service has allowed the number of large air tankers on exclusive use contracts to decline from 44 to 11, an air tanker that can carry as much retardant as four to five large air tankers, can be an extremely valuable tool in that box in the right conditions.

Texas Representative Michael McCaul, who organized the hearing, said “Despite all the warnings that Texas faced with it being the driest summer in more than 100 years, there was no prepositioned aircraft to help. We should have had more assets prepositioned. ” Tom Harbour, the Director of Fire and Aviation for the USFS, said the federal government had 3 large air tankers, 3 water-scooping air tankers, 15 single engine air tankers, and 12 helicopters in Texas on September 2 before the fires near Bastrop started.

Here is an excerpt from Harbour’s written testimony before the committee, and following that, commentary about a misleading statement he made:
Continue reading “Congressional committee holds hearing about federal response to Texas fires”

Senate hearing about wildfire management

On Tuesday the Senate Committee on Energy and Natural Resources held a hearing “to consider the wildfire management programs of the Federal land management agencies”. The Departments of Agriculture and Interior both had representatives provide testimony and answer questions from the Senators. The representatives were Kim Thorsen, the DOI’s Deputy Assistant Secretary for Law Enforcement, Security, and Emergency Management (her written testimony), and Tom Tidwell, Chief of the U.S. Forest Service (his written testimony). As far as I know a transcript of the full hearing is not yet available.

A video of the hearing can be found at the Committee’s web site. The first 18 minutes shows a mostly empty room; the hearing actually begins at 18:00.

The Senators had vastly different points to make and questions to ask. Senator James Risch from Idaho bragged that he was probably the only Senator in the room that had a degree in forest management and that he had operated a Pulaski.

Senator Jon Kyl from Arizona talked about the fires currently burning in his state and that he thought the agencies should concentrate more on fire prevention, which would save money on suppression.

Senator Lisa Murkowski from Alaska has dogged the USFS for years about the state of the air tanker fleet and continued to do so in Tuesday’s hearing. Here is a portion of her statement/question, which begins at 26:00 in the video:

In 2003 we asked the Forest Service to tell us, what do you need to replace the heavy firefighting aircraft that were grounded in 2002? It took 10 years to develop an answer. And when it came it was with a $2 billion price tag during a time when the Congress was cutting the federal budget by 15% to 20% and it included no recommendation as to how we were going to pay for it.

Even more frustrating is that the agency seems to be fixated on one aircraft type and refuses to consider any other alternatives. Last month Chief Tidwell told me that the Forest Service would work to acquire a variety of aircraft types but his staff continues to tell people that the agency will only accept an aircraft that can carry 2,000 gallons of slurry. I just don’t understand why the Forest Service continues to tell the aircraft manufacturers and others here in Congress that whatever the aircraft it acquires it is going to need to carry 2,000 gallons of slurry.

So my message to the land management agencies is this. Develop a procurement plan to replace the aging aircraft that looks at a variety of types and sizes of aircraft. Develop a plan that has the flexibility to drop slurry, foam, gel, or water. Develop it to take advantage of the lakes and rivers that hold millions upon millions of gallons of water that could and should be dropped by water scooping aircraft. And finally do not ignore the opportunity to keep the existing fleet operational longer.

Later she asked more questions about large air tankers and about the use of Very Large Air Tankers (VLAT), the DC-10 and 747, suggesting that the USFS look at using the VLATs. Chief Tidwell said his agency would do so.

Tidwell also bragged that the USFS had used the DC-10 on the Wallow fire in Arizona. He failed to mention that it was only possible because it was borrowed from CalFire. The USFS currently has no contracts with any VLATs, and has refused to even consider exclusive use contracts for them like they have with the 19 large air tankers, offering the VLATs just call when needed contracts that would only pay if and when the aircraft were activated and used on individual fires.

Senator Murkowski also mentioned the recent article in the Washington Post titled “Firefighting planes have perhaps been on the job too long” that Wildfire Today covered on June 13.

Interestingly, Chief Tidwell reading from his pre-submitted written testimony, deviated from it by adding at the end, at 41:50 in the video:

In closing I want to touch on the issue of large air tankers. Large air tankers are an accepted part of wildland fire suppression, but our current fleet averages more than 50 years old. In the next 10 years more than half of our large air tankers will need to be replaced and we are studying the options and will be making a recommendation to you by the end of the summer.

Excerpts from the DOI about resources available in 2011:

Continue reading “Senate hearing about wildfire management”

Congressional hearing topics: air tankers, and USFS reduces workforce

Updated at 5:34 p.m. MT, May 23, 2011

On May 19, 2011 the Senate Committee on Appropriations, Subcommittee on Interior, Environment, and Related Agencies, held a hearing about the U. S. Forest Service Budget. Sitting at the witness table was the Chief of the Forest Service, Tom Tidwell. Two topics related to wildfire management were discussed during the hearing, a major budget cut and the future of the large air tanker fleet.

Reduction in the number of USFS employees:

The budget proposal that the administration has submitted will require the agency to reduce the number of employees by 1,819 permanent full-time positions. It is not clear which programs will be affected by this, in spite of a direct question by Senator Jon Tester, D-Montana. Here is an excerpt from that portion of the hearing’s transcript:

TESTER: OK. Wildland fire management, $400 million — almost $400 million. Fires are a fact of life. But we all know we need to handle them in a way, because there’s a lot of people that live out there, there’s a lot of forest communities.

Can you tell me how that budget’s going to impact firefighting, and in particular if it’s going to have any impact on protecting our forest communities?

TIDWELL: Our proposed budget will provide the same level of preparedness that we’ve had for the last few years, the same number of firefighters, the — the same number of aviation resources.


So where’d the $400 million come from?

TIDWELL: Well, part of it, close to $100 million of those funds, were — are part of the integrated resource restoration budget line item.

TESTER: Which does what?

TIDWELL: Well, part of — that’s for — some of the hazardous fuels funding was moved into IRR.

TESTER: OK. So let’s — let’s just stop there for — for a second. It — it was moved into other accounts, so it’s still going to be funded or it’s not going to be done?

TIDWELL: It’s — majority (inaudible) was moved. There was a $9 million reduction. And that hazardous fuels work that we do outside of the wildland urban interface.


TESTER: Right. Because if there’s more hazardous fuels, it sounds to me — and correct me if I’m wrong — there’s more potential for fire; and you might have the same number of firemen, but you may have more fires.

TIDWELL: That’s — it’s a combination of our approach to be addressing the hazardous fuels, but at the same time providing that level of preparedness. And it — you know, we felt it was essential to maintain almost the same level of fuels work.

TESTER: OK, 1,819 employees will be terminated or not replaced if they retire, however you’re going to do it. And I’m all about making folks lean and mean and — and all that. Can you give me an indication on where those people are going to come from?

TIDWELL: Well, we did project that it’ll be — with this budget proposal, there’s a — will be a loss of about 1,800 permanent full- time positions. That’s about what we — our attrition rate is each year.

So we believe that for this budget proposal, with what we normally see with the number of people that retire or leave the agency, that we’ll be able to — to handle this level of reduction without having to take any actions with any of our employees.

The challenge will be is to — to match up the — you know, the — where we’ve lost the funding in these programs with our existing workforce. But we have — we’ve done a very good job to manage our workforce, I mean, to the point, we have a stable, flat workforce since about 1995.

And we’ve continued to do more and more work through contracting so that we are, I believe, well positioned, because our conservative approach to our workforce over the years, to be able to handle this.

TESTER: Just one last, if I may, Mr. Chairman?

You touched on something that drives me crazy in government, and that we reduce the workforce on one hand and we replace it with contract labor on the other hand. The cost is more than the workforce that existed before. That’s not going to happen here?

TIDWELL: No. No, I — I believe we’ll probably be doing less contract work in 2012 to be able to, you know, maintain our existing workforce. TESTER: OK. Thank you very much.

Large air tankers

The USFS has been studying the issue of replacing the fleet of large air tankers since the “Blue Ribbon Panel”, chaired by former NTSB Chairman James E. Hall, evaluated the air tanker program following the two crashes in 2002 in which the wings fell off very old military surplus aircraft, killing five people. Those crashes resulted in the permanent grounding of about 60 percent of the large air tankers, from 44 in 2002 to the 18 or so we have today.

Now there is still another study going on, this time by the Rand Corporation. It was due in January, 2011, but even Senator Dianne Feinstein, D-California, has had difficulty finding out anything about it. Last week, according to a newspaper article, Tom Vilsack, the Secretary of Agriculture, responding three months after her inquiry, said the report would not be completed until August. Will this report simply sit on a shelf next to the last one, or will the USFS actually do something this time?

Referring to the air tanker fleet with an average age of 50 years, in 2009 the USFS said that after 2012 “air tankers currently approved for use by the federal agencies will be either too expensive to maintain or no longer airworthy”.

Below is a discussion during Thursday’s hearing between Senator Lisa Murkowski, R-Alaska, Ranking Member, and Tom Tidwell, Chief of the U. S. Forest Service:
Continue reading “Congressional hearing topics: air tankers, and USFS reduces workforce”

USFS employees testify in Congressional Hearing about Station Fire

Employees of the U. S. Forest Service, both presently employed and retired, testified yesterday during a four-hour hearing in Pasadena, California about the response of the agency during the first 24 hours of the Station fire, which in August and September of 2009 burned 160,000 acres near Los Angeles and killed two LA County Fire Department firefighters. The hearing was called by members of Congress to try to determine the reasons for the reported lack of aggressive suppression efforts, especially the use of aerial resources, while the fire was still small on the first night and the second day.

The list of witnesses testifying included:

  • Will Spyrison, a Division Chief on the Angeles National Forest and the Incident Commander of the Station fire during the first night; now retired.
  • Don Feser, former Fire Management Officer for the ANF; he retired a couple of years ago.
  • Tom Harbour, Director of Fire and Aviation Management for the USFS in Washington.
  • William Derr, retired Special Agent for the USFS.
  • Jody Noiron, Forest Supervisor, ANF
  • Casey Judd, Federal Wildland Fire Service Association

Here are some excerpts from an article in the LA Times written by Paul Pringle:

Will Spyrison, the then-division chief who oversaw the operation on the second morning, said before a standing-room-only, often boisterous audience Tuesday that he made several calls for the air tankers between about 12:30 and 3:25 a.m. and was never told that they would not arrive until two hours after he needed them.

Station fire sign burning
Station fire. Photo: Inciweb

“I knew if I didn’t have the aircraft at 7 o’clock in the morning, there’s a very short window of time … between 7 and 9 a.m. was that window of opportunity to make a difference,” said Spyrison, whose account had not been made public before.

Rep. Adam Schiff (D- Burbank), who organized the panel, asked Spyrison if a 7 a.m. arrival of the tankers “could have made a critical difference in whether this fire got out of control.”

“Yes,” Spyrison said, “if it was possible to have them there at 7 o’clock in the morning.”

He then retreated a bit, saying, “You could play the what-if game” and “it’s hard to say” that the tankers would have helped knocked down the blaze before the sun heated the hillsides.

But he later said, “I went back and tried to confirm that aircraft because I knew the sense of urgency…. I needed it there by 7 to be able to, you know, make an effective attack.”

Rep. Howard P. McKeon (R- Santa Clarita) asked, “Did you ever receive an answer back?”

“No,” Spyrison said. “I asked several times for confirmation.”

Spyrison also said he did not know that a separate Martin Mars tanker had been in the air the evening before and was available to dump more than 6,000 gallons of water and gel on the fire but was turned away and directed to unload at another location.

“It would have helped,” he said.

Two former Forest Service officials said that the agency let Spyrison down.

“There was a void in overall command and control,” said former Angeles National Forest Fire Chief Don Feser.


To loud applause, L.A. County Supervisor Michael D. Antonovich suggested that the county Fire Department become the lead agency for fires in the Angeles National Forest.


[Tom] Harbour and other Forest Service officials repeatedly denied that cost concerns prevented them from turning immediately to state and local agencies for crews and equipment, including aircraft, to bolster the assault on the fire. The Times reported Monday that an internal review conducted for the U.S. Agriculture Department, which runs the Forest Service, found that financial worries delayed the arrival of “critical resources” at the fire.

Below is a video report about the hearing from from KABC:

The LA Times has some excellent photos taken on day 2 of the Station fire between 8:02 a.m. and 8:39 a.m. showing the fire first jumping across the Angeles Crest Highway. After that, the fire became very difficult to suppress.

More about the hearing:

Photo gallery
Washington Post
Glendale News-Press
LAWeekly: “Largest Fire in L.A. History Could Have Fizzled Sooner, If Not For Mystery Slacker”
Whittier Daily News