22 Jun 2008, 7:47pm
Federal forest policy The 2008 Fire Season
by admin

Grand Canyon Forest Holocaust Suspended

The brain trust at Grand Canyon NP decided to suspend the Walla Valley Prescribed Burn this morning after torching off a small portion last night. Their intention was to “mimic” a natural fire [here]:

In an effort to simulate natural fire events in the north rim forests, the Walla Valley prescribed burn will use a point source ignition technique intended to mimic receiving a group of lightning ignitions. These ignition points will be allowed to burn in all directions in the same way a naturally ignited fire would burn. The fire is expected to burn over a period of at least 3 weeks, exposing it to a variety of weather and wind conditions. As a result, it is expected that the effects of the Walla Valley prescribed burn will more closely resemble a natural fire then the effects seen on most conventional prescribed burns.

but when the match was struck they had second thoughts. From today’s GCNP press release [here]:

Fire Managers at Grand Canyon National Park Suspend Ignition of Walla Valley Prescribed Burn

Grand Canyon, AZ. – Early in the morning on Sunday, June 22, fire management officials on the North Rim of Grand Canyon National Park made the decision to suspend ignition of the Walla Valley Prescribed Burn. At this time, no further ignition activities will occur unless there is a change in the weather and fuel conditions that effect fire behavior.

Ignition operations on the Walla Valley Prescribed Burn began at approximately, 6:20 p.m., on the evening of Saturday, June 21. After assessing the behavior of a small test fire and finding it to be within acceptable parameters, fire crews began the burn by blacklining along the eastern flank of the burn unit in order to fully secure the perimeter of the fire. Once that perimeter was secure, a point source ignition technique would then be used within the burn unit in an effort to mimic the effects of summer lightning strikes. During this blacklining operation, spot fires began to occur and at greater distances than anticipated from the blackline and were immediately suppressed.

The “simulated natural fire” proponents were overruled by the firefighters. It was a completely stupid idea in the first place, as we so gently pointed out [here]. Apparently wiser heads prevailed, those heads being the ones on the shoulders of the people who were supposed to control the fire. The theoretical “naturalists” were told to stuff it.

From the press release (read between the lines) [here]:

Although predictive models and the behavior of the initial test fire indicated that conditions were appropriate to burn, fire managers determined that the fire behavior they were now experiencing was not within acceptable parameters for ignition operations to continue and suspended further ignition activity. Additionally this morning, fire crews initiated activities to halt the spread of the fire beyond its current size of 10 – 20 acres. As a precautionary measure, additional resources including a hot shot crew and an additional wildland fire engine and water tender have been called in to assist with these activities.

Currently, approximately 45 personnel from Grand Canyon National Park, Kaibab National Forest, Summit Fire District, Flagstaff Fire Department, Zion National Park, Carson National Forest and Saguaro National Park are assigned to the fire with additional resources arriving from Holbrook and Kaibab National Forest. Six wildland fire engines, a water tender and a Type 3 helicopter are already assigned to the fire with 2 additional helicopters and another engine and water tender being made available.

The fire managers called in every available crew in the region. USFS fire crews do not go the National Park fires unless invited. Somebody at GCNP did invite them, no doubt with some degree of panic.

“Help save us and the Park forests from our nutball bosses and their crazy simulated natural fire!”

Maybe it aided the fire crew’s efforts when SOS Forests called the GCNP Superintendent, Steve Martin, a “spit-on-the-law criminal element” and a “wild and crazy government-employed eco-terrorist hellbent on burning a National Park to ashes.” Or maybe it didn’t. Those people are pretty thick-skinned and who knows if they read SOS Forests anyway (although rumor is they do!).

The North Rim fire crew is a little bit famous due to being profiled in Stephen Pyne’s classic book/memoir, Fire On the Rim (1989, Univ of Washington Press). They call themselves the Longshots, a play on the term “Hot Shots.” Underfunded and hardly respected by the NPS, the Longshots are serious professional wildland firefighters with as much pride and skill as any USFS Hot Shot crew. They have defended the forests and facilities on the Rim from fire since the GCNP was dedicated.

Of all the personnel and visitors to GCNP, the Longshots are the most connected to the actual geography of the Grand Canyon. They hike the forests and trails, prepping fire caches, chasing smokes (and water dogs), fighting fires, searching for lost hikers, and various other boots-on-the-ground tasks. The average Longshot knows more about the actual Park than most of the “fern feeler” naturalists and incompetent park rangers, invariably college-trained but dirt-ignorant easterners. (A water dog, by the way, is a plume of morning fog that looks like smoke but isn’t. Chasing water dogs is akin to chasing wild geese).

In Fire on the Rim Pyne tells the amusing though tragic tale of an unprepared prescribed fire, demanded by Park officials and university researchers, that goes horribly awry:

We [the Longshots] bring out fusees, drip torches, and a flamethrower. Under Gonzo’s [Park ranger] roars and Benson’s [researcher] indifferent stare, we lay down strips of fire, each of which burns into the other while the first strips are still flaming; unobtrusively McLaren [the Park fire officer] dampens some of the excess fire-starting, but there is plenty, and the effect is awesome. Within a half an hour the ridgetop is a maelstrom of fire. A smoke column churns upward. In flashes we sight a large firewhirl embedded within the densest smoke. Tree after tree-mature ponderosa all, some over four feet in diameter-swell into flaming torches. When the great outburst subsides, it is discovered that the slope, heavily loaded with fuel and thick with fir reproduction, is practically unscarred, while the open, mature ponderosa forest has been gutted. Great trees now bear deep catfaces; they will topple over the road within a few days. Other trees suffer colossal crown scorch and will not survive the winter. “I thought,” says Wil out loud, “that the purpose of this burn was to make the slope look like the ridgetop.” McLaren’s lips are pursed and he looks unnaturally old in his orange hard hat. “Hey,” says Eric, “anybody got a buck I can pass?”

Perhaps a repeat of that kind of forest tragedy has been avoided, albeit temporarily, when the gonzo Park officials called off their simulated natural fire. The NPS is death on prepared fire, though. The very idea of chainsaw thinning and controlled burning of piled fuels in the “pristine environment” of the Park is anathema to the eastern elite park managers, who come to their western jobs burdened by myth and nonsense. Symbolism trumps substance in management of our national parks, as is so often the case in much (most?) of government today.

Myth prevailing over reality is the Post Modern gestalt we live in, our TV ersatz virtual reality that shuts out the real one. Forests, however, are real, and need real care and stewardship to survive, not simulated natural fire (God help us, what an oxymoronic dumb idea that is!).

Has the GCNP officialdom caught a clue? Don’t count on it. But you can count on a North Rim Longshot when you really need one.

23 Jun 2008, 6:56am
by bear bait

All those resources, and someone still had the pants scared off them. Just funny. I am still giggling. I have been there. Torch in hand.

I once had the State direct ignition of a slash burn. The State would not let me, the timber sale operator, light it. The State guy went up in the helicopter. They lit a line down the west fire trail in coast range slash by Eddyville. Before they had the line done, it had jumped the black line and was wind driven and gone. The helicopter landed and the State guy asked me what I was going to do. I told him go to Newport, and have a beer while he called for reinforcements. What the hell could I do? You lit it!!

So I told him to go up in the ship, and get a heavy slash spot going in the middle of the unit, and maybe we could take some of the pressure off. That they did, and of course it did not work. So I asked them to light the NE corner, and that burned to the middle, and then the SE corner and that burned to the middle, and by noon, the unit was burned. The fire was off trying to run downhill into GP piled slash, which it did. You could not stop those little bombs from going up. I had another unit just across a wide riparian save-leave area, so I had the helicopter ignite that unit. And by 2 in the afternoon, I had both units burned, and a wildfire that would lay down that night. No unit mop up costs. They all burned up good and were almost smokeless by nightfall. Then they fought fire all night, and by morning, had that limited to 40 acres. I ended up having to pay GP to replace planted trees. Bad day to burn, but when the powers that be make those kinds of decisions, you just make lemonade from their lemons. And, the helicopter bill was mine to pay, so I used him. By the time overhead got there, I had all the units burned, and the only fuels left were piled slash on GP. I told Ray Ayers I ought to charge him for fuel reduction. He did not find that funny. Ray was wound pretty tight. The State Unit forester was livid that I had burned the other unit. I didn’t have it lit until the first unit was about burned out. In all the confusion, nobody stopped me. There was a great plume, and all that heat just drew the fire from the little unit straight up into the atmosphere. All that could happen was maybe the fire would creep down into the riparian zone, but it stopped at the fire trail of its own accord. The way the slash lay, the heat was over a little hump and the chopper was able to get that heat going, and then light off the riparian line, and it all met in the middle real fast, cooked a while, and then just petered out.

The moral of the story is that young and dumb sometimes works. My job was to burn the slash. I got ‘er done. The State got the fire put out. And since their guy had lit it, nobody really wanted to get on my case too hard. They knew their exposure. And, in those days, foresters had vast slash fire experience, and nobody wanted to lose one just because it would cost money to fight. All that institutional memory is gone, people. The 20 years experience I had with slash fire as a sawmill timber manager trumps about any agency dude or dudette of today. They don’t know what they are doing today. They are trying to re-invent the wheel. pshaw.

5 Sep 2008, 10:10pm
by friendofire

Pyne’s book was published almost 20 years ago, and while excellent, should not be used to depict the current GRCA fire scene…NOONE who fights fire at the Canyon calls themselves a Longshot anymore, and the crew is a far cry from the caliber of the HotShots. Do some decent research!
And, in case you hadn’t noticed, we have had lightning, and therefore fires, on this planet for millions of years, and the western forests are not only adapted to fire, but thrive in it. What are you afraid of? What’s wrong with lighting off a few acres far away from any towns or houses and help fire make its way back into our forests?

5 Sep 2008, 10:44pm
by Friend o' Forests

Stephen Pyne has written 20 books and I’ve read every one of them! He is not only an expert on fire, he is a master literary craftsman, and in my opinion, one the greatest American writers ever. Twain holds up, so does Steinbeck, and so does Pyne.

For a more recent examination of fire on the Kaibab Plateau by Stephen Pyne, and more literary excellence, read Friendly Fire (excerpted and linked to here). All your questions will be answered, and then some.



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