President renews his attack on California and “forrest” management

Pilot Fire
A dozer tender on the Pilot Fire in Southern California, August 7, 2016. Jeff Zimmerman photo.

This morning when I saw a tweet that appeared to be from President Trump that threatened to “send no more money” to California at first I thought it was sent by a parody account. The fact that “Forrest” was misspelled, not once but twice, and capitalized, made it seem unlikely that the leader of the free world could misspell the word. Then I saw the little blue checkmark, indicating that it is a verified account.

I made a screengrab of the tweet in case it was deleted, and shortly after that, it was. Here is the original version:

Trump President forrest
Tweet by President Trump which was deleted Jan. 9, 2019.

About 50 minutes after sending the Forrest tweet he deleted the first version and sent a revised copy that was exactly the same, but this time spelling “Forest fires” correctly.

If our President is going to try to influence how state or federal land management agencies manage their forests, he needs to know enough about the issue to spell the word correctly.

Mr. Trump has made the threat of cutting off funds to California related to wildfires on other occasions, including November 10, 2018 and October 17, 2018.

On November 27 Mr. Trump expanded on his wildfire management opinions in a lengthy interview with two reporters from the Washington Post, Philip Rucker and Josh Dawsey. Below is a portion of what he said to them about fires, according to the Post:

I was watching the firemen and they’re raking brush — you know the tumbleweed and brush and all this stuff that’s growing underneath. It’s on fire and they’re raking it working so hard, and they’re raking all this stuff. If that was raked in the beginning, there’d be nothing to catch on fire.

It sounds like the firefighters were mopping up, using tools to stir duff and burning materials so that it can cool, or so water can be more efficiently applied. He also has advocated raking the forest floors. But reducing the threat of wildfires is much more complicated than raking. On December 28, 2018 I wrote about some of the complexities involved in preventing homes from burning during a wildfire, and the fact that home owners, planners, and local jurisdictions have the responsibility to design structures, infrastructure, and communities that can live with wildfires. Treating fuels near residential areas using mechanical methods or prescribed burning is also necessary. More logging is not the answer.

According to a 2015 report by the Congressional Research Service the federal government manages 46 percent of the land in California. The California Department of Forestry and Fire Protection manages or has fire protection responsibility for about 30 percent.

In August the President tweeted about California,“Must also tree clear to stop fire spreading!”

Below is an excerpt from an article in the Sacramento Bee on August 7, 2018:

The Trump administration’s own budget request for the current fiscal year and the coming one proposed slashing tens of millions of dollars from the Department of Interior and U.S. Forest Service budgets dedicated to the kind of tree clearing and other forest management work experts say is needed. And it’s just one example of how the federal government is still not prioritizing fire mitigation to the scale that is needed, according to forestry experts.

“I think for a number of years the feds were more ahead of this dilemma, at least in discussions,” said Scott Stephens, a professor of fire science at the University of California, Berkeley. But “I have to say right now, I think the state is moving ahead. It’s certainly being more innovative, it’s doing more policy work.”

Presidential order sets goals for fuel reduction

The Executive Order also addresses the use of drones and increases timber harvesting by 37 percent.

prescribed fire Custer State Park
Firefighters ignite the Norbeck prescribed fire in Custer State Park. Photo by Bill Gabbert.

With the devastating wildfires in California this summer and the visits by President Trump to the Camp and Woolsey Fires, firefighting and forest management were brought into the national conversation. Mr. Trump showed an interest in the fire siege, criticizing forest management, suggesting rakes as one of the solutions, and threatening on multiple occasions to cut unspecified funding allocated to California.

The magnified interest seen in Washington may have been the impetus for the *Executive Order (EO) signed by Mr. Trump on December 21. The document requires emphasis in a number of areas related to wildland fire, some of which have specific goals. The stated rationale for the EO is identified:

For decades, dense trees and undergrowth have amassed in these lands, fueling catastrophic wildfires. These conditions, along with insect infestation, invasive species, disease, and drought, have weakened our forests, rangelands, and other Federal lands, and have placed communities and homes at risk of damage from catastrophic wildfires.

With the same vigor and commitment that characterizes our efforts to fight wildfires, we must actively manage our forests, rangelands, and other Federal lands to improve conditions and reduce wildfire risk.

Both Mr. Trump and his Secretary of the Interior, Ryan Zinke, who also showed up before cameras at fire scenes this summer, denied that climate change is one of the factors affecting the increase in wildfire activity in recent decades.

“I’ve heard the climate change argument back and forth. This has nothing to do with climate change.”

Interior Secretary Ryan Zinke, in an interview after visiting the Carr Fire at Redding, California.
climate assessment wildfires increase
The cumulative forest area burned by wildfires has greatly increased between 1984 and 2015, with analyses estimating that the area burned by wildfire across the western United States over that period was twice what would have burned had climate change not occurred. Source: adapted from Abatzoglou and Williams 2016.

The EO lists a number of areas with specific goals or directives.

FUEL REDUCTION. The four Department of the Interior land management agencies now have an objective in 2019 of treating a total of 750,000 acres to reduce fuel loads. The objective for the Forest Service is 3,500,000 acres. As of December 8, 2018, according to the National Situation Report, the year-to-date accomplishments for acres treated with prescribed fire were 525,659 and 1,307,389, respectively. Presumably, mechanically or herbicide-treated acres were not included in those 2018 figures. The goals appear to be substantially higher than what has been done this year. However, as direction from on high moves the goal posts, federal agencies can sometimes initiate creative methods to keep everyone happy. For example, recently the Forest Service has started “counting” wildland fire acres where light to moderate wildfires have caused vegetation to improve what used to be called “fire condition class”. These then become “treated acres”. In addition, some timber sales are now being counted. So, magic, presto, poof! The number of acres “treated” adds up more quickly than they used to. A person with extensive D.C. experience told us that they expect the land management agencies are not worried about meeting the fuel treatment goals laid out in the EO.

prescribed fire acres accomplished 2018
Prescribed fire data from the December 8, 2018 National Situation Report.

LOGGING. Calling it “health treatments”, the FS has a goal of selling 3.8 billion board feet of timber in 2019, while the DOI’s goal is 600 million. This total of 4.4 billion board feet is a significant 37 percent increase over the 3.2 billion board feet removed from those agencies’ lands in 2017, according to the Sacramento Bee. The EO also requires the Secretaries of Agriculture and Interior to identify salvage and log recovery options from lands “damaged” by fire, insects, and disease in 2017 and 2018. Many people say that logging is not the answer to the wildfire problem, and that areas visited by fire are not necessarily “damaged”. While some rehabilitation is often required, burned areas don’t always have to be fixed or logged.

NATIVE AND INVASIVE SPECIES. Both the FS and the DOI have goals of treating 750,000 acres.

UNMANNED AERIAL SYSTEMS. The Secretaries are ordered to maximize the use of unmanned aerial systems (UAS), or drones, in forest management and in support of firefighting. The DOI has been extremely aggressive in the last two years in establishing a surprisingly robust UAS program. There is a report that a person formerly with the DOI’s Alaska Fire Service is now heading the Forest Service UAS program.

The goals in the EO are an unfunded mandate. It says, “[The agencies] shall review the Secretary’s 2019 budget justifications and give all due consideration to establishing the following objectives for 2019, as feasible and appropriate in light of those budget justifications, and consistent with applicable law and available appropriations.”

*Here is a backup copy of the Executive Order in case the one at disappears.

Thanks and a tip of the hat go out to Eric. Typos or errors, report them HERE.

A correction was made December 26 about the new leadership of the Forest Service UAS program.

The President expands on his comments about the wildfires in California

Camp Fire Northern California
Camp Fire in Northern California. Inciweb photo.

Several times over the last month President Trump has expressed his opinions about wildland fire management. On two occasions he said forests were being mismanaged in California, but did not specify exactly how, or if he was referring to the half of the forested land in the state that is managed by the federal government, or possibly the state managed lands, or private property. He also threatened twice to cut funding in the state because “forest management is so poor”, but it was not clear what funds he wants to reduce.

On November 27 Mr. Trump expanded on his wildfire management opinions in a lengthy interview with two reporters from the Washington Post, Philip Rucker and Josh Dawsey. Below is what he said to them about fires, according to the Post:

“The fire in California, where I was, if you looked at the floor, the floor of the fire they have trees that were fallen, they did no forest management, no forest maintenance, and you can light — you can take a match like this and light a tree trunk when that thing is laying there for more than 14 or 15 months. And it’s a massive problem in California. … You go to other places where they have denser trees — it’s more dense, where the trees are more flammable — they don’t have forest fires like this, because they maintain. And it was very interesting, I was watching the firemen and they’re raking brush — you know the tumbleweed and brush and all this stuff that’s growing underneath. It’s on fire and they’re raking it working so hard, and they’re raking all this stuff. If that was raked in the beginning, there’d be nothing to catch on fire. It’s very interesting to see. A lot of the trees, they took tremendous burn at the bottom, but they didn’t catch on fire. The bottom is all burned but they didn’t catch on fire because they sucked the water, they’re wet. You need forest management, and they don’t have it.”

This quote was in the Post’s Fact Checker column, written by  Glenn Kessler and Salvador Rizzo, in which they checked a number of statements made in the interview. If you scroll down you will see what the authors determined to be factual, or not, in the President’s comments about fire.

This reminds me of how fictional President Josiah Edward “Jed” Bartlet of the TV series The West Wing handled a controversial wildfire issue. (Spoiler. It was very different.)

Thanks and a tip of the hat go out to Kelly.
Typos or errors, report them HERE.

Secretary Zinke issues misleading information about wildfire risk

He incorrectly said a beetle infestation leads to an added risk for fire

Beaver Creek Fire beetles intensity
Photo of a portion of the 2016 Beaver Creek Fire in Colorado, an area with heavy beetle kill. One smoke is visible. USFS photo by Andrea Holland.

Today Secretary of the Interior Ryan Zinke tweeted that trees killed by beetles “are an added risk for fire”. This is misleading at best, and incorrect when all of the facts are brought to light.

And as before when the Secretary and the President said “poor forest management” and “environmental radicals” are responsible for the recent major fires in California, the issue can’t be described or solutions offered using just a few words. It is nuanced and complicated, not lending itself to a 280-character conversation.

In 2010 I first became aware of research by scientists that found fire severity decreases following an attack by mountain pine beetles. Since then additional studies have led to a more thorough understanding of the process.

Three factors or characteristics of a beetle-killed forest affect the behavior of a wildland fire.

  1. After a tree is killed by a mountain pine beetle, the needles turn brown or red; this is known as the “red stage”. The dead red needles remain on the tree for one or two years and then fall off. During this period the potential for a crown fire that moves above the ground through the tops or crowns of the trees can increase. After the needles drop the potential for a crown fire is close to zero. A crown fire can’t be controlled. No amount of fire retardant dropped by aircraft, water applied from the ground, or dozers building fire lines will stop it. This is the largest factor to consider when discussing fire behavior before and after a beetle outbreak. After a couple of years, it is easier to control a fire in a beetle-affected forest than one that is green, and this effect lasts for decades. There are other factors to consider also.
  2. After 5 to 15 years the limbs begin to break off a beetle-killed tree and then the top can break off and eventually the remainder of the tree falls to the ground. This adds fuel to the forest floor and can increase the intensity of a fire that burns along the ground. It is easier to control a surface fire, even one burning intensely, than a crown fire .
  3. After a decade or two the potential for individual or multiple tree torching can increase. This involves the burning of an entire standing single tree or multiple trees. These latter two issues, surface fire intensity and torching, add to the challenges for firefighters, but the reduced crown fire potential greatly outweighs the other two.

This can be distilled into what I have called Resistance to Control (RTC) which considers those three characteristics of a beetle-killed forest. One to two years after the insect-attacked tree dies, the RTC increases,  but after that it decreases immediately and remains lower than before the attack for several decades. Eventually live trees replace the dead ones and all three characteristics return to their normal state.

The chart below summarizes these three issues. It is from a paper titled Effects of bark beetle-caused tree mortality on wildfire, written by Jeffrey A. Hicke, Morris C. Johnson, Jane L. Hayes, and Haiganoush K. Preisler. With apologies to the authors of this very good research paper, I took the liberty of adding a Resistance To Control variable (the red line) to their chart.

Bark Beetles effect on fire behavior, multiple studies w-resistance to control

There is still another characteristic of a beetle-killed forest that is important to consider. Pine beetle outbreaks do not automatically lead to catastrophic wildfires. In 2015 University of Colorado Boulder researcher Sarah Hart determined Western U.S. forests killed by the mountain pine beetle epidemic are no more at risk to burn than healthy Western forests. Other scientists have found similar results.

Mr. Zinke referred to a forest with evidence of tree mortality caused by insects as a forest that is not healthy. Insects are part of the ecosystem; they will always be part of the forests. We will never be able to eradicate them, nor should we. The populations of the insects run in cycles. They feed on trees to survive.

In addition, the “dead and dying timber” as a result of fires or insects that Mr. Zinke wants to remove is an integral part of the forest ecosystem. The National Wildlife Federation says, “Dead trees provide vital habitat for more than 1,000 species of wildlife nationwide. They also count as cover and places for wildlife to raise young.”

An article at The Hill November 20 covers how Mr. Zinke and Secretary of Agriculture Sonny Perdue are hoping that the new version of the Farm Bill will allow more logging that among other objectives, “beautifies the forests”, as Mr. Zinke is quoted as saying.

Roy Renkin, a Yellowstone National Park Vegetation Management Specialist, wrote in 2010, “Disturbances like insect outbreaks and fire are recognized to be integral to the health of the forests,” he said, “and it has taken ecologists most of this century to realize as much. Yet when these disturbances occur, our emotional psyche leads us to say the forests are ‘unhealthy.’ Bugs and fires are neither good nor bad, they just are.”

(Here is a link to all articles on Wildfire Today about beetles and fire.)

Woolsey Fire in Southern California beginning to demobilize as President visits

Mr. Trump toured the fire site after seeing the Camp Fire in Northern California

President Trump visits the Woolsey Fire
President Trump visits the Woolsey Fire, November 17, 2018. Screen shot from the ABC7 video below.

(Originally published at 3:07 p.m. PST November 18, 2018)

After President Trump visited the site of the Camp Fire at Paradise, California Saturday, he flew on Air Force One from Beale Air Force Base 360 miles south to NAS Point Mugu about 8 miles west of the western edge of the Woolsey Fire. From there a motorcade took the entourage to where the blaze stopped at the Pacific ocean on November 9 as it was being driven by strong Santa Ana winds out of the northeast. At Malibu the President toured the sites of burned houses on Point Dume with Governor Jerry Brown and Governor-elect Gavin Newsom.

Progression map Woolsey Fire
Progression map of the Woolsey Fire, November 17, 2018. Produced by the Incident Management Team. To see a full size version, click HERE (very large 9 MB file).

Firefighting resources are beginning to be released from the Woolsey Fire, and Sunday is the last day that the helibase will be in operation.

CAL FIRE says the fire has burned  96,949 acres and 1,130 structures, with no breakdown of residences vs. outbuildings. The number of civilian fatalities has remained at three for several days.

Officials have lifted evacuation orders for all locations in Ventura County, but remain in effect for some areas in Los Angeles County. Here is a link to official current information about evacuations.

Rain is in the forecast for the fire area on Wednesday with the potential for about 0.7″ in the Thousand Oaks area. There is a 20 percent chance of debris flows below the burn areas, with a possible effect on properties and roadways.

Now that the fire activity has decreased scientists are moving in to begin an assessment of the changes. For example, they have already determined according to the LA Times, that “of 13 mountain lions with radio collars they had been tracking before the Woolsey fire broke out, scientists confirmed that 12 were alive and moving outside of the burned areas.”

map of the Woolsey Fire
The red line on the map of the Woolsey Fire was the perimeter at 7 p.m. PST November 16, 2018. The white line was the perimeter on November 12.

Most of the land within the Santa Monica Mountains National Recreation Area burned, destroying at least 616 structures including the Paramount Ranch where many western-themed shows were filmed. The National Park Service hopes to rebuild the western town within two years with the help of a fundraising campaign in Hollywood.

President visits the devastating wildfire at Paradise, California

Mr. Trump traveled to a burned trailer park at the Camp Fire

Progression map of the Camp Fire
Progression map of the Camp Fire, November 17, 2018. Base map produced by the Incident Management Team. Notations and insertion of legend by Wildfire Today. Click to enlarge. A full-size version of the map can be downloaded (large 3 MB file).

(UPDATED at 1:31 p.m. PST November 18, 2018)

Yesterday President Trump traveled to California to see first hand the destruction caused by the two recent very large fires in the state. Air Force One landed at Beale Air Force Base and then Mr. Trump helicoptered in Marine One about 40 miles north to the Incident Command Post for the Camp Fire at Chico where he met with Governor Jerry Brown and Governor-elect Gavin Newsom. He also had a very short briefing from the Incident Commander as they looked at the progression map (see the map above).

To see all articles on Wildfire Today about the Camp Fire, including the most recent, click HERE.

Saturday evening Butte County Sheriff Kory Honea announced that five more bodies were found, bringing the total number killed on the Camp Fire to 76. More than 1,200 are on the unaccounted for list, but officials warn that it most likely includes duplications and errors. According to CAL FIRE the fire has burned 149,000 acres, 9,891 residences, and 367 commercial structures.

The group toured a portion of the burned area in Paradise with the city’s Mayor Jody Jones, and made a stop at the Skyway Villa Mobile Home and RV Park.

President Trump Camp Fire visit
President Trump at the Skyway Villa Mobile Home & RV Park in Paradise, California, site of the Camp Fire. Screen shot from Global News video.

While at the Incident Command Post Mr. Trump promised to include $500 million in the Farm Bill in what he called “a new category, management and maintenance of forests”. At every stop Saturday he reiterated that forest management was a key issue in preventing devastating fires, including later in the day when visited the Woolsey Fire in Southern California. Firefighters and California residents are still reeling from the President’s November 10 tweet when he wrote:

There is no reason for these massive, deadly and costly forest fires in California except that forest management is so poor. Billions of dollars are given each year, with so many lives lost, all because of gross mismanagement of the forests. Remedy now, or no more Fed payments!

During his visit Mr. Trump mentioned the “forest nation” of Finland as a good example that spends “a lot of time raking and cleaning….”

When a reporter asked him if he had changed his mind about climate change after viewing the damage, he said:

No, no. I have a strong opinion. I want a great climate. I think we’re going to have that and I think we’re going to have forests that are really safe.

The video below was filmed while the President was at the Incident Command Post for the Camp Fire.

On Friday Butte County officials asked those who want to help the thousands of residents who lost all of their belongings, to not donate clothing or other items, but to send cash. The logistics of accepting clothes, including cleaning, storage, and redistribution, are very space and time consuming, especially in light of the rain that is in the forecast. “Shelter and drop-off locations are at capacity and cannot take any more items!” the county said on its Facebook page.

Below is a map of the Camp Fire, updated at 6:40 p.m. PST November 17, 2018, and then, photos of the mobile home park taken before the fire.
Continue reading “President visits the devastating wildfire at Paradise, California”