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.)

Secretary of Interior blames “environmental radicals” for California wildfires

Camp Fire
A firing operation on the Camp Fire. Inciweb photo. Click to enlarge.

Ryan Zinke, like his boss President Trump, blamed something other than the extreme wind, low humidity, and drought for the two recent devastating wildfires in California that have killed 80 people.

Below is an excerpt from an article at The Hill:

Interior Secretary Ryan Zinke blamed “environmental radicals” for the California wildfires that have killed at least 77 people, saying they stop forest management practices that could have prevented the fires.

Days after touring the damage of the Camp fire, the deadliest in California’s history, Zinke went on Breitbart News Sunday and declared “it’s not the time for finger-pointing” on the causes of the fires.

But minutes later, he put the blame squarely on environmentalists, contending that they stood in the way of clearing brush, doing prescribed burns and other actions.

“I will lay this on the foot of those environmental radicals that have prevented us from managing the forests for years. And you know what? This is on them,” Zinke said.

While touring the Camp and Woolsey Fires Saturday Mr. Trump reiterated at every stop that he believes forest management in California was the key issue in preventing devastating fires, and threatened to cut fire funding for the state. He mentioned the “forest nation” of Finland as a good example that spends “a lot of time raking and cleaning….”

The fatality count on the Camp Fire east of Chico rose again Sunday as search teams found another set of human remains to bring the total loss of life to 77, with 993 unaccounted for. The current tally for the number of homes destroyed is 11,990, and acres burned, 151,000. The number of commercial structures burned rose from 367 to 472.

The remains of three individuals have been found in the Woolsey Fire at Malibu, California. That fire has burned 96,949 acres and 1,130 structures.

Secretary of Interior orders more aggressive fuel management

The directive introduces a political element to wildland fire management

Jasper Fire
The Jasper Fire approaches the Visitor Center at Jewel Cave National Monument, August 25, 2000. NPS photo by Bill Gabbert.

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.

Secretary of Interior used wildfire funds for helicopter tour of National Monuments

The tour was prior to deciding which monuments to shrink

Before Secretary of the Interior Ryan Zinke made his recommendation to the President about which National Monuments to shrink, he used wildfire preparedness funds appropriated to the National Interagency Fire Center office in Boise to pay for helicopter flights over sites in Nevada.

According to an article in Newsweek by Celeste Katz, the use of the helicopter on June 26, 2017, which cost taxpayers and the Bureau of Land Management $39,295, was unrelated to wildland fire. The account used for the flights is designated for fire personnel salaries and equipment.

Below is an excerpt from the article:

But after Newsweek questioned the line item, an Interior Department spokeswoman said this week that the chopper—listed in an accounting of Zinke’s travel as costing $39,295—“was charged to the account in error.” She added that the BLM would pay for the helicopter from “a more appropriate account.”

The official purpose of the round-trip helicopter trip was for an “aerial survey of objects and boundaries pertaining to the 704,000 acres in Basin and Range National Monument and the 300,000 acres in Gold Butte National Monument.”

From Newsweek:

Zinke ultimately recommended shrinking not only Gold Butte in Nevada but other Western national monuments, including Bears Ears in Utah and Cascade-Siskiyou in Oregon and California. His Gold Butte recommendation angered conservationists but was hailed by Nevada Senator Dean Heller and the head of a local water district.

The National Incident Management Situation Report published on June 27, 2017, the morning after the helicopter tour, showed two large wildfires burning in Nevada, the Cole Creek and Dolly Fires, but Secretary Zinke did not visit any fires on his trip. The report showed that in the Great Basin Geographic Area, which includes Nevada, 16 helicopters were working on 21 fires, with 54 helicopters in use nationally.

Secretary Zinke has been criticized for using military, chartered, and National Park Service fixed and rotor wing aircraft, at times for purposes that could be difficult to justify.

The Department of the Interior supplied a list of some of the Secretary’s use of non-commercial aircraft, but it does not include a trip with Agriculture Secretary Sonny Perdue to Boise on August 24 on an Air Force plane similar to a Boeing 737.

Ryan Zinke air force aircraft 737

Wildfire activity continues in northwest California and southwest Oregon

Oregon’s Chetco Bar Fire has exceeded 100,000 acres

Above: Firefighters on structure protection duty set up a sprinkler system on the Chetco Bar Fire in Southwest Oregon. Undated photo on Inciweb.

(Originally published at 9:03 a.m. PDT August 24, 2017)

The wildfires in Southwest Oregon and Northwest California continue to grow at a fairly steady pace, with occasional large expansions during wind events.

The Chetco Bar Fire five miles northeast of Brookings, Oregon was mapped very early Thursday morning at 102,333 acres, moving past the 100,000-acre threshold into “megafire” territory. But it is still one-fifth the size of the Biscuit Fire that covered almost half a million acres in the same general area in 2002.

The red line was the perimeter of the Chetco Bar Fire at 12:16 a.m. PDT August 24, 2017. The white line was the perimeter two days before.

The map of the Chetco Bar Fire shows that while it continues to spread along much of the perimeter that growth has slowed since it quadrupled in size over a four-day period, August 18 to 22. It added 2,389 acres on Wednesday through minimal flanking, backing, and creeping fire behavior due to cooler temperatures and higher humidities.

More fighters have poured in to the Brookings, Oregon area which is five miles southwest of the fire. Over 1,100 personnel are now working on the blaze, including 21 hand crews, 118 engines, and 8 helicopters. The incident management teams report that 25 structures have burned.

Three teams are assigned to the Chetco Bar Fire: Livingston’s Type 1 team, Greer’s Type 2 team, and Houseman’s National Incident Management Organization (NIMO) team. (The NIMO folks need to come up with a better name for their teams.)

wildfires in southwest Oregon and Northwest California
The red, brown, and yellow dots represent heat detected only within the last week on wildfires in southwest Oregon and Northwest California.

The fires in Northwest California do not receive much press coverage since they are in remote, sparsely populated areas. The largest is the Eclipse Complex of five fires 10 miles north of Happy Camp which has burned 40,500 acres. It is also known as “CA-KNF-006098 Complex”. On Wednesday the inversion that had been moderating fire behavior lifted over one of the five fires, the Prescott Fire, which became active and burned towards the Oak Fire. This produced a large smoke column that caused ash fall along the Hwy 96 corridor and throughout the Happy Camp area.

Toll and Squirrel Fires
The Toll and Squirrel Fires are not in Northwest California, but are near Quincy, California. August 20, 2017. Inciweb.

In other wildfire news, the Secretaries of the Interior and Agriculture are visiting Missoula and the Lolo Peak Fire today (August 24), accompanied by the USFS National Fire Director, Shawna Legarza.

Continue reading “Wildfire activity continues in northwest California and southwest Oregon”