8 Dec 2007, 1:32pm
Management Policy
by admin

Back to the Rim: The Story of the Warm Fire

By Mike Dubrasich

Full text [here]

Selected excerpts:

The Grand Canyon is a national icon, a symbolic monument that echoes through American literature, art, and science. The Grand Canyon is a piece of our national identity.

It is thus ironic (or perhaps entirely appropriate) that the principal feature of the Grand Canyon is nothing. The GC is a big hole in the ground. The viewer’s startling revelation is in regards to what is not there (terra firma) rather than what is there (thin air)…

To be sure, the shape of the nothingness is also important. The sides of the empty space are spectacular cliffs, with domed and flat-topped pinnacles and spires. The enclosure of the void is colorful and sculpted with form and line, but what makes the terrain so amazing is its sheer verticality. From the top it’s a long ways to the bottom, and more or less straight down…

There is another feature of the Grand Canyon. If you stand at the northern edge and look away from the Canyon, that is, with your back to the Rim, you will see a forest. It’s not just any forest, either. It is the Kaibab Forest, the ponderosa pine forest of the Kaibab Plateau, one of the most magnificent forests in the world…

The Kaibab Forest has never captured the American imagination in the way the Canyon has. This is ironic (and tragically inappropriate in our opinion) because the Kaibab Forest has substance, while the Grand Canyon is, principally, nothing.

The Kaibab Forest is a ponderosa pine forest. About half the forest is nearly pure pine, and a third is mixed conifer (ponderosa pine, Douglas-fir, Engelmann spruce, Colorado blue spruce, white fir, and subalpine fir). Pure spruce forests, aspen groves, and meadows make up the rest…

For at least the last 9,000 years people have been living in the Kaibab Forest. Thousands of archaeological sites have been found, indicating that the entire Forest has been almost continuously occupied by somebody or other since way back when. The residents were variously hunters, gatherers, farmers, and herders. They were human beings. They interacted with the landscape just like human beings everywhere: through the agency of fire.

People have been setting fire to the Kaibab Plateau for thousands of years. They set fires to clear land for farming, to remove hazards, to drive game, and for dozens of other practical reasons. They probably also set fires by accident, although the majority were likely by intent.

Lightning fires also occurred every year. However, the lightning fires encountered a pre-burned landscape and so they behaved like anthropogenic fires. Catastrophic fires that killed all the trees across vast tracts were rare, because fuels were never allowed to build up to catastrophic levels…

The early explorers widely attributed the open character of the Kaibab Forest to anthropogenic fire, although Indian burning was called “Paiute forestry” by detractors. John Wesley Powell, the greatest Grand Canyon explorer, was a supporter of anthropogenic fire as a forest management tool, and had a public political fight with Gifford Pinchot over the practice. Both men’s careers were crippled by the battle, but Pinchot’s ideas prevailed.

Over the last 100 years the US Forest Service has fought tooth and nail against Paiute forestry. The animus ran and runs deep, so deep that the USFS denies to this day the impact of Prehistoric Man and anthropogenic fire on American forests.

This Denial of the Obvious is a form of institutional intellectual schizophrenia. An odd mix of the precise detail, together with a romantic but false grand impression so characteristic of the eco-religious, suffuse the USFS oeuvre…

The Kaibab Forest was once magnificent. Today it is a tattered remnant of its former self. Ever since the Kaibab Forest was stolen from the Paiutes, first by the Mormons and then by the U.S. Government, the Forest has suffered and declined.

The Kaibab was one of the first western forests to be railroad logged. The gentle terrain was perfect for long, straight rail lines deep into the non-infinite (as it turned out) colonnade. Railroad logging was first; after WW II massive skidder/chainsaw clearcutting was instituted…

This venture failed. This should really come as no surprise. The government is and always has been incompetent at tree farming (this should come as no surprise, either). Consequently, the Kaibab N.F., for the most part, has been deforested and converted to brush…

Fuels management is a necessary part of forest restoration because many areas within the Kaibab Forest have accumulated 150 years worth of biomass build-up. Two negative things happen when accumulated fuels burn. First, the fires are very hot and tend to crown, killing all the living trees. Second, the fires fail to combust all the fuels…

The Kaibab N.F. now has a program to deal with heavy fuels. They treated close to 18,500 acres in 2004…

The Warm Fire

On the afternoon of June 8, 2006, a lightning storm swept across the Kaibab Plateau. One of the high voltage, sky/earth exchanges set a tree on fire south of Jacob Lake.

Kaibab National Forest fire crews could have responded immediately. The terrain is flat and roads crisscross the area. The Kaibab has, or used to have, one of the best firefighting teams in the Nation.

But that is not what happened. Instead, the leadership of the Kaibab N.F. chose to let the fire burn. They named it the Warm Fire, and designated it a Wildland Use Fire.

Wildland Use Fires are a new duck, something that most people have never heard of. Wildland Use Fires are not wilderness fires; “wildland” is a euphemism for regular Forest Service acres. Everything the Kaibab N.F. owns is “wildland,” in their minds, except perhaps for the buildings.

Of course, none of their land is wild (including their designated wilderness), according to the accepted definition of the word. All of the Kaibab Forest has been tended by resident human beings for millennia…

It is not the government’s land. It is our land. The government works for us…

In the case of the Warm Fire, a whoofoo, the Kaibab N.F. made a huge mistake by allowing an accidental fire to burn in untreated acres. They were overly proud of their firefighting abilities, and positively stupid about their fire behavior predictive abilities.

But mostly the Kaibab N.F. violated a main stewardship fact that they were acutely aware of: they allowed, even encouraged, an accidental fire to burn in untreated acres…

The Warm Fire smoldered in duff and crept around for a few days. Everything looked fine, although no real-time analysis was done of the effectiveness of the fire at consuming old fuels, or not consuming green trees.

Then the wind picked up a little. The Warm Fire jumped Highway 67 on June 15. It jumped it again two days later and grew to 750 acres.

By daylight on the 18th, the Warm Fire had grown to over 3,000 acres. Then it doubled to over 6,000 acres on the 19th. Still, the Kaibab leadership kept the WUF designation, and Let It Burn.

By the 22nd Warm Fire had grown to over 10,000 acres. Still the WUF designation was clung to. The fire was not doing the intended fuels management job, but it was natural (read totally accidental) and it was “free” (that would change, and how).

Early in the morning of June 23, strong winds came rushing out of the west, pushed by a high pressure ridge that every weatherperson in the country knew about. The Warm Fire blew up, and overnight grew to 15,000 acres. Still, there was no change in WUF designation.

Finally on the 24th, the Kaibab N.F. was forced to face reality. They decided that the Warm Fire had done enough damage, and called in the Northern Arizona Type 2 Incident Management Team.

There was some public pressure to do this, since Highway 67 had been shut down and 750 visitors and employees were trapped at the North Rim of the Grand Canyon, with a raging inferno on one side and precipitous cliffs on the other.

By the time the NAZ IMT got set up on June 26, the Warm Fire had grown to 30,000 acres. By the next day it was near 60,000 acres, the doubling due mainly to the perimeter and backing fires set by the NAZ IMT.

The NAZ IMT is made up of real pros with real experience and abundant ground and air resources. They contained, controlled, and mostly extinguished the Warm Fire by July 4th. The final acreage toll was 58,640 acres…

The cost to the Kaibab Forest is immeasurable. The forest has not been restored by cleansing fire; it has been destroyed by holocaust…

In February 2007 the North Kaibab Ranger District posted a document on their website entitled Warm Fire Assessment: Post-Fire Conditions and Management Considerations.

The Assessment is a brutally frank report on the ecological damages inflicted on the Kaibab forest by the Warm Fire. The following types of damage have and will continue to occur:

Financial - In addition to fire suppression costs, over 200 million board feet of green trees were killed and partially consumed. At a stumpage value of $0.25 per board foot, this represents a $50 million loss to the owners, the citizens of the United States. Additional forest recovery expenses are unknown at present but could eventually top $10 million, bringing the total cost-plus-loss of the Warm Fire to approximately $70 million.

Soil erosion - The intense burn denuded vast acreages, including 15,000 acres in erosion-prone Marble Canyon. Rain and snow runoff have already incised deeper channels and accelerated soil loss. Roads and road culverts have been damaged. Known archaeological sites have been eroded away and partially lost.

Water quality - Ash and sediment have been transported in Marble and Kanab Creeks to the Colorado River. More has pooled in ephemeral stream channels and will continue to degrade water quality during runoff events. Effects on fish-bearing streams have not yet been assessed.

Forest vegetation - Over 60 percent of the Warm Burn experienced 100 percent mortality of the trees. This level of destruction was roughly equivalent in the whoofoo zone and the wildfire zone. Much of what was incinerated was old-growth ponderosa pine. The Assessment was based on satellite images taken July 9, 2006, five days after the fire was declared fully contained. Post-fire delayed mortality from fire stress, bark beetles, and fungi had not even begun to happen. An updated assessment made in five years will reveal that much more than 60 percent of the Warm Burn experienced total forest obliteration. A heritage ponderosa pine forest has been converted to aspen, pinyon-juniper-brush, cheatgrass, and short-lived fir thickets. Shockingly, the Assessment concludes that conversion of heritage, old-growth ponderosa pine forest to short-lived aspen is “a significant ecosystem benefit of the Warm Fire”!

Fire hazard - Surface and fine fuels were partially consumed, but the addition of dead snags increased coarse fuels. In areas not colonized by aspen, fire hazard will increase quickly. Brush will sprout and rapidly replace surface and fine fuels within a decade. As snags fall, they will increase surface fuel loading and the potential for very hot return fires. Hence fire risk is only temporarily lessened.

Wildlife - Over 40,000 acres of habitat for the Mexican spotted owl was destroyed by the Warm Fire. Similarly, habitat for the northern goshawk was decimated. From the Assessment:

All of the high and a proportion of the mixed-high mortality forested areas can no longer be considered goshawk nesting habitat, and it will take a long time, over a hundred years, for nesting habitat to develop again in these areas… Important prey species on the Kaibab Plateau include American robin, Stellar’s jay, hairy woodpecker, northern flicker, red-naped and Williamson’s sapsuckers, chipmunks, golden-mantled ground squirrels, cottontail rabbits, blacktailed jackrabbit, Kaibab squirrel, and red squirrel (Reynolds et al. 1992, Wiens et al. 2006). The Warm Fire will likely have a short- to long-term negative effect on goshawk prey populations in the high mortality areas.

Mule deer may have benefited from the Warm Fire, because of the expected increase in sprouting forage such as aspen. On the other hand, a significant percentage of the habitat for the Kaibab squirrel has been destroyed. From the Assessment:

The Kaibab squirrel is a species closely associated with ponderosa pine forest. The Kaibab squirrel, a subspecies of Abert’s squirrel is endemic to the Kaibab Plateau. In 1965, 200,000 acres of ponderosa pine forest within the Kaibab National Forest and Grand Canyon National Park were designated as the Kaibab Squirrel National Natural Landmark. National Natural Landmarks are designated by the Secretary of Interior and represent unique examples of ecological and geological features that comprise our nation’s natural history. The Warm Fire encompasses 43,737 acres of the Kaibab Squirrel National Natural Landmark. Of those acres, 13,686 acres were characterized as high vegetation mortality within the suppression area, and 3,602 acres were characterized as high mortality in the wildland fire use portion of the fire. Kaibab squirrel mortality from the fire was likely high in these areas because crown fire moved rapidly through most of the high severity areas. Ponderosa pine forests characterized as high mortality can no longer be considered Kaibab squirrel habitat, and it will take decades for these areas to recover sufficiently to become Kaibab squirrel habitat again. A certain proportion of mixed-high mortality ponderosa pine forests also can no longer be considered Kaibab squirrel habitat.

Heritage sites - The entire Kaibab Plateau is a historic, cultural landscape occupied by human beings for over 10,000 years. However, Kaibab archaeological specialists have identified 145 heritage resource sites including pueblo village sites with agricultural features such as garden enclosures, terraces, and water retention systems, artifact scatters, masonry structures, aspen carvings, rock shelters, and rock art. Of these 109 were within the Warm Burn. This is a low estimate because over half the Warm Burn has never been surveyed for heritage sites.

All such ancient sites can be damaged by intense fire outside the historic norm. Wood, masonry, and rock art are particularly susceptible, and increased erosion can wash away artifacts and expose prehistoric human burials. The risk of vandalism and illegal artifact collecting may increase due to new exposure. In addition to ancient sites, 13 of 20 historic wooden structures within the Warm Burn were damaged or destroyed. These included lookout trees, corrals, a historic cabin, and several Navajo brush structures…

The Warm Fire was a crime. In fact, a number of violations of Federal Law were committed by the perpetrators of the Warm Fire.

As a result of those violations, nearly 60,000 acres of priceless, heritage forests were incinerated, at a cost-plus-loss of $70 million or more, (it is difficult to appraise the value of priceless objects).

The principal crime was the abrogation of the 2005 Decision Notice for the Wildland Fire Use amendment to the Kaibab NF Forest Plan. The Decision Notice specifically prohibits wildland fire use fires (whoofoos) in the mixed conifer forest on the North Kaibab Ranger District. Yet the Warm Fire was allowed to burn as a whoofoos in the prohibited mixed conifer zone…

The prohibition on whoofoos was placed on Ecosystem Management Area #13, and includes elevations raging from 7,000 to 9,000 feet on the Kaibab Plateau. Forest species present in this zone include ponderosa pine, Douglas-fir, true firs (Abies sp.) and Engelmann spruce. EMA #13 is 268,719 acres. It constitutes less than 18 percent of the 1.6 million acre Kaibab National Forest. Whoofoos are legally allowed on the other 82 percent of the Kaibab NF, but not in EMA #13.

The whoofoos portion of the Warm Fire was within the MSO critical boundary of EMA #13. The wildfire or “suppression” portion of the Warm Fire is almost entirely in protected MSO habitat (we use the word “protected” euphemistically).

The Warm Fire was designated and managed as a whoofoos in a prohibited zone in direct defiance of the legally binding Decision Notice and Forest Plan EIS. That is a Federal crime. The Kaibab NF Forest Supervisor, Mike Williams, is signatory to the 2005 Decision Notice. Mr. Williams was also the final authority that approved the Warm Fire Wildland Use Fire in the prohibited zone. Mr. Williams personally violated a court-ordered, binding contract that he himself signed, and a multi-million dollar environmental catastrophe resulted…

It is tragic that Kaibab Forest has been incinerated. The cause is wanton lawlessness by Federal officials, which is perhaps a bigger tragedy. If we do not have rule of law in this country, or what we have is selectively applied, then our American system of constitutional government is at risk.

The destruction of the Kaibab Forest was also caused by an intellectual vacuum, the propensity of Kaibab NF managers to ignore on-the-ground realities in favor of imaginary and symbolic myths. The destruction was not mythical, though.

No lessons were learned from the Warm Fire. The US Forest Service continues to burn heritage forests with whoofoos. In 2007 over 750,000 acres of National Forest on the Idaho Batholith were incinerated by Let It Burn fires. The environmental devastation from those fires will remain for many decades, if not forever. Converting forests to brush is permanent.

The Kaibab Forest, one of the most magnificent ponderosa pine forests on this continent, an “infinite colonnade” of open, park-like forest and legacy of countless generations of human stewardship, is no more. The loss is real, not symbolic. The emptiness of the Grand Canyon was matched by the vacuousness of US Forest Service, and the Kaibab Forest is the new wasteland they have created.

The USFS stared into the void and lost connection with the forest they were supposed to protect. Now that forest is destroyed.

If only they had turned their backs to the Rim, and examined the forest instead of the nothingness, if they had put substance ahead of symbolism and stewardship ahead of mindless political correctness, perhaps the treasure that was the Kaibab Forest would be there today, instead of blackened old-growth snags and sprouting brush.

6 Jul 2010, 10:23am
by Gary B.

Thank you for the analysis of what went wrong with the Warm Fire. I couldn’t agree more.



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