Senators want more timber sales to protect urban areas

Stage Hill Fire
Stage Hill Fire near Cascade, SD, June 16, 2012. Photo by Bill Gabbert

The six US Senators in Colorado, Wyoming, and South Dakota have signed a letter sent to Agriculture Secretary Tom Vilsack recommending an increase in the number of timber sales on national forests in areas prone to wildfires. In the letter dated November 8 the senators said overgrown forests, drought, vast stretches of trees killed by beetles, and more people living in fire zones have left the West at a critical juncture. They urged the US Forest Service to conduct more forest thinning near critical infrastructure and in areas where urban areas are up against forests.

The letter was signed by Senators Mark Udall and Michael Bennet of Colorado; Mike Enzi and John Barrasso of Wyoming; and Tim Johnson and John Thune of South Dakota.

Firefighting, structure protection, and public relations

Myrtle ICP July 26, 2012
What is left of the Myrtle Fire Incident Command Post at Custer High School, July 26, 2012. The fire is contained and has been turned over to a smaller Incident Management Team, a Type 3 team. Photo by Bill Gabbert (click to enlarge)

When the Myrtle fire, which is now contained, was threatening structures between Pringle and Hot Springs, South Dakota, many firefighters were assigned to structure protection. Most homeowners who evacuate have little understanding of what will happen around their house while they are hunkering down in a motel or school gym. Firefighters, when time permits, will do far more than spray water on the structure, as Lynn and Gardner Gray discovered when they visited their home near Pringle the day after they evacuated.

Jim Kent, a columnist for the Rapid City Journal wrote about the Gray’s experience in today’s edition. Here is an excerpt:

…During a return visit the following day, Lynn encountered four firefighters taking what she considered extraordinary steps to fully protect her property.

Once the Myrtle Fire moved out of range and the couple were back in their house, Lynn insisted I tour the property so she could point out the care and attention given by complete strangers.

From removing the propane tank on the Grays’ outdoor grill, to fully sealing their garage door and saturating 6 cords of wood stacked against the side of their home, the firefighters left no combustion hazard to chance.

They even took down a flammable decorative flag and repositioned a wood-handle rake before digging a protective trench around the property. In fact, the list of what the firefighters actually did is too long to include here.

And speaking of public relations, Craig Bobzien, the Forest Supervisor of the Black Hills National Forest in South Dakota, met with a group of citizens from the Edgemont area who had concerns about how the White Draw fire was fought. Mr. Bobzien explained in a Rapid City Journal article attributed to him that he had heard about some complaints in the media and wanted to hear them first hand.

White Draw Fire
White Draw Fire, June 29, 2012 Photo by Bill Gabbert

Those citizens from the Edgemont have been generating a lot of publicity about how some of them thought the firefighters could have stopped the 9,000-acre rapidly spreading timber fire in late June if only they had paid more attention to the locals. Previously, on July 6 South Dakota Senator John Thune traveled to Edgemont with reporters and photographers in tow to also meet with those citizens. This was the fire on which a military C-130 MAFFS air tanker crashed, killing four members of the crew and injuring two others.

Landowners criticize management of White Draw fire

White Draw Fire June 29, 2012
White Draw Fire, 9:36 p.m., June 29, 2012, a few hours after it started. Photo by Bill Gabbert

In a meeting with Senator John Thune (R-SD) on Friday, some local property owners criticized the strategy and tactics that the Incident Management Team used while suppressing the White Draw fire, which burned 9,000 acres northeast of Edgemont, South Dakota.

Here are some excerpts from an article in the Rapid City Journal:

The Edgemont Volunteer Fire Department was the first on the scene, fire chief Paul Nelson told Thune.

Nelson is frustrated with the Forest Service’s handling of the fire in its early stages and its poor communication with local firefighters.

Several local volunteers and landowners believe the fire could have been stopped in the early stages if federal officials would have consulted with them on everything from roads to equipment availability.

The firefight was mismanaged, Ben Reutter said.

“They wouldn’t ask the local guys where the roads were. That’s unacceptable,” Reutter said.

Reutter’s father, 68-year-old Edward Reutter, suffered a heart attack shortly after the fire headed for his property last Friday. He died the same night at a Hot Springs hospital.

“It was the stress,” his daughter-in-law, Becky Reutter, said.

The fire started on the edge of some rough country, volunteer firefighter and rancher Toy Litzel said. “But it could have been fought.”

Forest Service officials were unaware of roads that could have given them better access to the fire and wouldn’t take the advice of the area’s residents, locals said.

“They didn’t listen to us,” Nelson said.


There was also an underlying regret among local residents that four lives were lost in the fire when a C-130 cargo plane from the North Carolina Air National Guard crashed July 1. Two members of the crew survived the crash.

The Forest Service’s lack of regard for the local community was evident when a memorial service for the fallen men was set for 6 a.m. July 5, without notifying local residents, Reutter said.

“A lot of people would have come,” he said.

After visiting with the Edgemont area residents, Thune conferred with fire officials and U.S. Air Force representatives.

Black Hills National Forest Supervisor Craig Bobzien assured Thune that his agency was “tied in with local firefighting resources very well.”

Bobzien said the local resources were used. Firefighters from larger departments were brought in so the local units could go home in case of new fires.

“I hope there wasn’t any sort of misunderstanding there,” Bobzien said. Bobzien assured Thune he would follow up on any concerns.

This is not the first time an Incident Management Team has been criticized for the failure to communicate with locals. For example, in April a Montana landowner was awarded $730,000 after some of their land burned in the 2000 Ryan Gulch wildfire.

Without knowing exactly where, how, and under what burning conditions the locals thought the IMTeam could have stopped the White Draw fire, it is difficult to say they are wrong. However, under the hot, dry, windy conditions while the fire was cranking out thousands of acres a day, no experienced wildland firefighter would have been out in front of it while it was exhibiting extreme fire behavior. And no ranch road, two-track, or Interstate Highway can stop a timber fire pushed by strong winds.

A homeowner’s beetle battle

Loggers recently cut down many trees behind the house, leaving a meadowy hill in their wake. Photo: Jamie Osborne

The New York Times has an article about a couple who 12 years ago built a house on 11 acres of land outside Helena, Montana. Then beginning 4 years ago, the bark beetles started killing the trees. Now, after hauling away the dead ones, they are living in a meadow and for the first time can see their neighbors.

Here is an excerpt from the article:

…When we bought the land, the stands of timber were so dense and unruly you couldn’t walk through parts of the property. I bought my first chainsaw, an orange beauty. I spent a lot of time thinning small trees, sawing up bigger ones for firewood, splitting and stacking the wood, and using it all to heat our house. We rarely used the propane furnace. Our masonry wood stove from Finland, a Tulikivi, has a mass of gray soapstone around the fire box that stores the warmth and radiates heat into the house for 24 hours, even in the coldest days of December.

And we were “fireproofing” our property, thinning trees around the house should a wildfire break out.

Four years ago, the beetles came. First a couple of our oldest pine trees turned red. Alarmed, we quickly cut them down and covered them with black plastic. It’s stomach-churning when the tree reaper comes to claim your forest. One day ivory-colored plugs that look like candle wax are plastered on the trunk, a sign the tree is pumping out resin to try to halt a drilling bug. Sometimes a tree wins by entombing a beetle; far more often the trees lose to the mob assault.

Then things went exponential. One dead tree turned to five and the next year five turned to 30, dying far faster than I could cut them down. Now the mortality count is in the hundreds, more than 95 percent of our forest, and many more in the national forest around us.

Last week we threw in the towel. A logging crew cut down all but a few of our trees, taking away our forest and leaving us a meadow. The trees, too damaged to be turned into lumber, were hauled off to a pulp plant, where they will be ground into an oatmeal-like slurry and turned into cardboard boxes. I won’t make money; in fact it will cost me some $700 an acre to get rid of them. And good riddance — the sooner they’re gone the better. Dead trees are a fire waiting to happen….

In a related story, Senator John Thune, R-SD, proposes to fight the beetle problem with more logging, in addition to other methods. From the Rapid City Journal:

Sen. John Thune, R-S.D., outlined a comprehensive plan Thursday designed to address the growing pine beetle infestation in Black Hills National Forest and surrounding areas.

Thune’s plan centers on forest management practices, creating a market for woody biomass material removed from the forest and reforming the U.S. Forest Service’s mechanism for funding forest management and fire response activities, according to a news release from the senator.

“The pine beetle infestation is destroying acres of beautiful forest land at an alarming rate while raising the danger of wildfires to very high levels,” Thune, who is a member of the Senate Ag committe which oversees national forests, said in the release. “My plan employs effective techniques that will preserve the health of our forest with an emphasis on fire prevention while at the same time expanding the region’s potential for renewable energy development.”

Thune’s pine beetle plan includes provisions such as:

  • Strong timber harvest targets over the next five years.
  • Expansion of the Health Forest Restoration Act expedited environmental review process.
  • Streamlined Forest Stewardship Contracts.
  • Implementation and extension of the Biomass Crop Assistance Program.
  • Expansion of the renewable biomass definition to include forest waste.
  • Reformed Forest Service funding for forest management and fire suppression activities.