There can be a variety of narrative reports written about a wildfire, including 24-hour and 72-hour, After Action Review, Individual Fire Review, Fire and Aviation Safety Team Review, and Lessons Learned Review. But a type that was new to us has been released about the 2012 Little Bear Fire in New Mexico. It is titled “Little Bear Fire Summary Report” which is a vague title for a report that analyzed perceptions — how the fire was viewed by fire managers and local residents.
It could be categorized more as research than a conventional report on a fire. A team of seven social scientists from North Carolina State University, the U.S. Forest Service, University of Colorado, and Ohio State University conducted interviews of stakeholders, with a focus on perceptions of the event itself — communication, evacuation, and wildfire preparedness. They talked with community members, local organizations, and federal agency personnel.
The Little Bear Fire started on June 4, 2012 northwest of Ruidoso, New Mexico and was contained at four acres with a fireline around it during the first five days. On the afternoon of the fifth day a wind event blew embers from a torching tree outside the fireline causing the fire to eventually burn 242 houses and 44,330 acres.
The management of the fire has been a magnet for criticism from politicians, residents, and others. But this new report does not explore in detail the tactics, strategy, or suppression decisions that were made — it concentrates on how the fire was perceived.
“Gordie”, a Wildfire Today reader, in commenting on how the U.S. Forest Service expends time and energy on designating “Honorary Forest Rangers” such as Arnold Schwarzenner and Betty White, wrote in part:
…A public official in Washington state once said (paraphrased): “What we are perceived to do may be more important in our customer’s eyes than our actual accomplishments.” A horrible truth, but for the great unknowing masses, looking good is more important [to] taxpayers than actual functionality.
Applying Gordie’s analogy, the USFS ordered research to determine if they are “looking good”.
We will get to the report’s findings, but first there was one fact about the management of the fire that was new to us. On June 9, the day after the four-acre fire blew up, the New Mexico Governor ordered a second Type 1 Incident Management Team. This decision was made without consulting the existing Type 1 team, which learned of the order hours after it had taken command of the ﬁre. When this was discovered, the second team was assigned to stage at Albuquerque, rather than continue to the fire.
In June, 2012, Representative Pearce was extremely critical of the way the U.S. Forest Service was managing the fires, mentioning the name of Tom Tidwell, Chief of the Forest Service, many times during a 22-minute speech on the floor of the House of Representatives.
The five reports, plus one bonus article from the 1940s, can be found on Representative Pearce’s web site, and include the following:
William A. Derr, retired as Special Agent in Charge of the Law Enforcement and Investigative program in California. Mr. Derr was asked by Rep. Pearce to evaluate the management of the two fires, and was given the title of Legislative Fellow during his fact finding mission. It was an unpaid assignment, and Mr. Derr told Wildfire Today that he is not even sure if he will ask to be reimbursed for his travel expenses.
Roger Seewald, retired from the U.S. Forest Service, began his career in wildland fire on the El Cariso Hot Shots in California, and after a decade or two switched over to law enforcement. At one point late in his career he worked out of the Washington office as Deputy Director, Law Enforcement and Investigations. In his report he stated he was representing the U.S. Forest Service. In Mr. Derr’s report he was described as “representing the Chief of the Forest Service”.
Doug Boykin, Socorro District Forester, New Mexico – Energy, Minerals and Natural Resources Department, Socorro District. Mr. Boykin was the Type 3 Incident Commander during one of the early stages of the Whitewater Baldy Complex. He wrote a 17-page report packed with details and photographs. One of those details that is surprising for an objective report by a government employee about a disastrous wildfire, is that he apparently thinks God controlled the fire, and wrote: “But, given what we know now, I feel this was the perfect set up by a higher power that had grown tired of our inability to use common since [sic] in forest management and chose to set things right in his own way.”
Allen Campbell, a local resident and rancher who spent his early years “guiding clients”. His report covers the legacy and the environmental impacts of the fire, and is critical of the USFS fire management policy.
Impact DataSource, is an economic consulting, research, and analysis firm working out of Austin, Texas. Their report is titled “The Full Cost of New Mexico Wildfires”. The purpose of the report was to “…estimate the full impact of wildfires in New Mexico both during and after the wildfire occurs.” And, “…additional environmental,societal, economic and fiscal impacts are typically not tracked by any federal, state or local government or organization making the full impact of wildfires difficult to quantify.”
Earl W. Loveridge, formerly the Assistant Chief of the USFS, and before that the Assistant Chief of it’s Division of Operation and Fire Control. This reprint of a Journal of Forestry article appears to have been written in the mid-1940s. Chief Loveridge covered fire management policy, was critical of a “let burn” strategy, and pointed out the “importance of speed of control”. He also covered the 1935 origin of the “10 a.m. policy”, in which “Forester” F. A. Silcox stated, in part:
“The approved protection policy on the National Forests calls for fast, energetic and thorough suppression of all fires in all locations, during possibly dangerous fire weather. When immediate control is not thus attained, the policy then calls for promptly calculating of the problems of the existing situation and probabilities of spread, and organizing to control every such fire within the first work period. Failing in this effort the attack each succeeding day will be planned and executed with the aim, without reservation, of obtaining control before ten o’clock of the next morning…. No fixed rule can be given to meet every situation; the spirit implied in the policy itself will determine the action to be taken in doubtful situations.”
The management of both fires, the Whitewater Baldy and the Little Bear, has been criticized. The Whitewater Baldy began as two fires, the Whitewater and the Baldy fires, which burned together. The Baldy was a “modified suppression” fire and was monitored, but the Whitewater was managed under a suppression strategy.
Much of the criticism of the Little Bear fire, including from Wildfire Today, was focused on what appeared from a distance to be less than aggressive suppression tactics, even though it was a suppression fire. Two firefighters worked the fire on the first day, and from day two through day five, while the fire was only four acres, a hotshot crew was assigned, but they had very, very little aerial firefighting support; limited use of one helicopter and no air tankers. On the fifth day the wind increased, a tree in the interior of the fire torched, and spot fires took off. The fire grew from 4 acres to 44,000 acres and destroyed 254 structures.
Mr. Derr’s report does not dig into the tactics of the fires, but concentrates primarily on the fire management policy of the USFS. He is critical of less than aggressive strategies, and regrets the abandonment of the 10 a.m. policy.
Mr. Seewald visited the four-acre site that comprised the Little Bear Fire for the first 5 days and cited steep slopes, heavy downed fuel, tree canopy, and rolling rocks as issues that made aerial support inadvisable, and for any more than one crew of firefighters to work the fire. He concluded that the USFS “…made every reasonable effort to extinguish the Little Bear Fire and used acceptable methods and strategies to control the fire.” He found very little to criticize other than suggesting that the USFS could “revisit” the methods used for communicating with the public and cooperators.
The Seewald report said the strong winds that caused the spot fires to take off were not predicted in the spot weather forecasts provided to the firefighters.
Doug Boykin, the Incident Commander on the Whitewater Baldy Fire, believes that the decisions about management of the Whitewater and the Baldy fires were appropriate, after taking into consideration the firefighting resources available, weather, fuels, and topography. Mr. Seewald, while he did not say so explicitly, seemed to agree with that assessment.
In June, during a speech on the floor of the House of Representatives, Representative Steve Pearce, a Republican from New Mexico, heavily criticized the U.S. Forest Service, mentioning the name of Tom Tidwell, Chief of the Forest Service, many times. At that time he was ranting about what he saw to be a lack of aggressive fire suppression, which he felt contributed to the growth of the Little Bear Fire which burned 242 residential and commercial structures after it had been managed for four days while it was four acres in size. He also advocated more fuel reduction, especially near communities. But he did not offer to sponsor any legislation to restore the reductions in federal funds which have resulted in less money available within the land management agencies for fuel management.
Representative Pearce has put himself in the news again, this time by submitting an editorial under his name to the Albuquerque Journal. In the piece dated September 6, he continues to criticize the USFS, and again advocates more intensive fuel management, but fails to offer any funding relief. Here is an excerpt from the article:
…In support of the public’s personal safety, including that of our first responders, I continue to question why [New Mexico’s Little Bear and Whitewater-Baldy] fires were not extinguished before strong winds caused them to burn out of control. My office is working with retired Forest Service personnel to get answers to this important question.
As I have stated previously, my concerns are with Washington policies and not with our brave firefighters. Decades-long mismanagement of our federal lands has allowed the fuels to build into what we see today and explode into the raging blazes that we witnessed this summer.
Progress into changing these long established failed policies has been made. Just recently, on Aug. 7, Joe Walsh, a Washington spokesman for the U.S. Forest Service, said that the agency would “more aggressively extinguish small fires before they become larger ones.” This is the correct mindset that Americans need.
In another shift, on Aug. 16, Tom Harbor, the director of Fire and Aviation Management for the U.S. Forest Service, said that it was changing policy and would begin allowing helicopters to attack wildfires at night in Southern California.
However, here in New Mexico, in the Aug. 8 issue of the Ruidoso News, the chief ranger of the Lincoln National Forest’s Smokey Bear Ranger District said he “would do nothing different.”
It is extremely concerning to hear that locally, the Forest Service demonstrates no concern with existing policies. Policies that very likely allowed for the destruction of our local communities, impacting families, businesses and public health.
It is my intention to see that the Forest Service re-evaluates its policies and implements basic changes that can better improve prevention of these large out of control fires in the future. Nothing sweeping. Nothing radical. Just common sense, such as thinning areas that are overgrown, establishing safety zones around at-risk communities and aggressively/immediately putting out fires in these areas.
In a speech on the floor of the House of Representatives Thursday night, Representative Steve Pearce, a Republican from New Mexico, heavily criticized the U.S. Forest Service, mentioning the name of Tom Tidwell, Chief of the Forest Service, many times. During the 22-minute speech which can be viewed on C-SPAN, he displayed to television cameras and a mostly empty chamber a poster-size photograph of the Little Bear fire as it burned near the town of Ruidoso.
Rep. Pearce was very critical of what he described as the USFS’s policy of reintroducing fire to the forest and the abandonment of the 10 a.m. policy of attempting to suppress fires by 10 a.m. the next morning, or failing that, by 10 a.m. the next day. Pearce said he talked with Chief Tidwell about the 10 a.m. policy who told him that “it worked too well”, which did not please Rep. Pearce.
The Representative also said the USFS should do more thinning, and cited an example along with another poster of a thinned forest that was visited by last year’s Wallow fire in Arizona. He pointed out that the crown fire slowed and dropped to the forest floor when it entered the thinned area.
Some of the statements that Rep. Pearce made about long term fire effects could be questioned by wildfire experts, but he also indirectly recommended prompt aggressive initial attack on emerging fires. Surprisingly, he only mentioned air tankers once or twice, and that was in relation to them not being used, he said, on the Little Bear fire until late in the fourth day.
He did not say anything about sponsoring legislation or restoring funding for the federal land management agencies.
What set Rep. Pearce off appeared to be the management of the Little Bear Fire which has grown to 43,000 acres and has burned 242 residential and commercial structures. According to the Representative, the fire was 1/4 acre for a day, then grew to four acres for the next three days, during which time there were no air tanker drops until late on the fourth day.
Rep. Pearce then said: “I think that the decisions locally are made by people who are trying to follow the policy of reintroducing fire into the forest.”
The size and the time line he mentioned are fairly consistent with the details provided by the Operations Section Chief on the fire, Carl Schwope, in a video we posted June 18. However, Mr. Schwope did not address the use of aircraft during the first four days. We wrote then about the information he provided in the video:
The fire started June 4 and the Forest Supervisor authorized the use of chain saws and dozers in the wilderness area. Firefighters contained it at four acres with a line around it. After “several days” of mop up, on June 7 an interior pocket of unburned fuel flared up causing some trees to ignite and torch, sending burning embers across the line. The weather on June 8 “caused the fire to make a significant run”, then it was off to the races.
Dave Warnack, the USFS District Ranger where the Little Bear Fire is burning, has been very defensive about the reports that the fire was contained during the first four days. In an article in the Ruidoso News, Ranger Warnack blamed “miscommunication” for those reports.
We have ranted before about the confusion and misuse of the terms “contain” and “control”. Contain simply means there is a fireline around the fire which can reasonably be expected to stop the fire’s spread. There is no guarantee that the fire will never spread any further. Control means that the Incident Commander stakes their reputation on their belief that no additional acres will burn. These definitions in more formal language can be found in the National Wildfire Coordination Group’s Glossary. If someone declares a fire OUT, they are saying nothing is burning on the fire and there is no chance in hell that it will spread.
According to the Ruidoso News article, the fire which started June 4 was being managed under a full suppression strategy. There were some helicopter water drops on day four, June 7, but they were largely ineffective due to the tree canopy. The helicopters had difficulty lifting 300-gallon water blivets to the fire at the 10,200-foot elevation, so they settled for 75-gallon blivets, which were used for filling backpack pumps.
The article explains what happened next:
“By the morning of (June 8, day 5), when this thing blew up, we had completed a preliminary hand-line around (the fire),” (Ranger) Warnack said. Crews were beginning to mop-up the edges, working their way towards the center of the fire with shovels and backpack pumps, each containing five gallons of water, he said.
Then the winds increased, gusting to 40 mph, he said.
“Inside of that (hand-line) a couple of trees torched, (the fire) climbed up into the crown of those trees,” he said. “There were only a few, but with the winds, some of those embers got pushed out to the other side of the line into the grass.”
Two air tankers were ordered on the fire, but were unsuccessful in stopping the expanding blaze, which was starting spot fires far ahead of containment efforts, the report stated.
An armchair Incident Commander with the benefit of 20/20 hindsight might wonder why there were not enough ground and air resources on hand to not just complete a fireline around the four-acre fire and “begin mopup” on day five, but to do 100 percent mopup during the first four days. And assuming that the IC had an accurate weather forecast predicting the wind event on day five, that forecast could have provided even more incentive and plenty of justification to bring in a helicopter to wash the four-acre fire off the hill, and enough ground resources to turn over every square inch of the four-acre fire during those first four days. On most 4-acre fires in a remote location that are moving very slowly or not spreading, this can usually be done by one helicopter and a hand crew over one to three days. Of course all of this is easy to say from an armchair.
The Type 1 Incident Management Team headed by Incident Commander Joe Reinarz has produced a nine-minute video about the Little Bear fire which has burned 38,116 acres in New Mexico. The only person with a speaking part is Operations Section Chief Carl Schwope who talks about the chronology and strategy while soothing acoustical guitar music plays softly in the background.
The IMTeam should be praised for making this video and giving the public a glimpse of how a fire is seen from the eyes of a firefighter. It was no small endeavor and required a lot of editing and the use of video footage and still photos from the fireline.
Mr. Schwope mentions something that was news to me. The fire started June 4 and the Forest Supervisor authorized the use of chain saws and dozers in the wilderness area. Firefighters contained it at four acres with a line around it. After “several days” of mop up, on June 7 an interior pocket of unburned fuel flared up causing some trees to ignite and torch, sending burning embers across the line. The weather on June 8 “caused the fire to make a significant run”, then it was off to the races.
It has been ten days the Little Bear fire in southern New Mexico started, and in that time it has burned 224 homes, blackened 39,912 acres, and firefighters have it 40 percent contained. On the more populated east side the fire has moved into areas with less continuous fuel, slowing the spread and making it easier for firefighters to construct fire line. On Wednesday most of the fire activity was on the west side. Tanker 911, a DC-10 was used in this area, dropping 11,600 gallons in each sortie.
A more detailed map of the Little Bear Fire can be found HERE.
The video below is a good summary of the fire activity on Wednesday.
The DC-10 is shown making a couple of drops in the excellent video below.