The South Barker Fire

- If this situation is not corrected quickly, the Forest Service will not survive.

by Glenn Bradley

On a hot August afternoon in 1946, Iron Mountain Lookout reported a big smoke in Barker Gulch just east of Featherville. My Dad was on a pack trip, but the five men from the Shake Creek Ranger Station flew into action. My mother called the crew from Dave Stokesberry’s sawmill at Featherville and a few other people from the Featherville area. My job as a ten year old was to take the standby horse from the barn and ride to the fire so I could carry drinking water to the men as they worked.

When I got to the fire, the roar of the crowning was deafening and I was full of fear. It was my first exposure to a really active fire. The fire burned about 80 acres that afternoon. My dad got there about midnight. We all worked through the night, and by morning we had a semblance of a line around it. Our only power equipment was a portable Pacific Marine pump.

With that background, you can understand why a short news article in the Twin Falls paper of August 8, 2008, caught my eye. It said there were two single tree fires in Barker Gulch that had started about 1:00 PM on August 7. It also said the Forest had not decided as of 5:20 PM whether to put the fires out or let them burn. It said Forest officials considered their potential to spread to be slight. The article ended by saying that red flag conditions were forecast for the next day.

I was on my way to a family reunion when I read the article. When we returned from the reunion, there was an article in the August 15 paper saying the fire was now 1,355 acres and a national team had been called to help fight it. It also said the area from Baumgartner to Featherville had been closed.

I could hardly believe it. Just a few days before it started, the Chief had notified the field that the fire budget was exhausted and fire activities would have to be paid from other appropriations for the rest of the fiscal year. I knew the country well enough to know it could grow a lot more and cost into the millions.

I wrote an e-mail to Tom Harbour and told him something was terribly wrong with the policies if a forest could choose to ignore a chance to put a fire out for a few hundred dollars and then spend millions on it when there was no fire money left. I went on to say that it was at least unprofessional and probably criminal to let a fire go in steep, fragile, beautiful country in extreme burning conditions with no prior planning and no way of predicting where it might stop.

I sent copies to the supervisor and the ranger and a few retirees. Within a day, I got an overwhelming number of responses from retirees all over the country. The few I had sent copies to sent them on to people they knew. All but one said they agreed with me 100% and cited similar situations in their areas where it appeared no common sense was being used in fire management.

Jane called me the next Monday and assured me the people in Featherville agreed with what she was doing. I told her I could agree to some prescribed burning if it were done with good planning and preparation in compliance with NEPA, and under weather conditions when it could be controlled. She said they had done some planning and had identified about 4,000 acres in that area that they would like to burn at the rate of 1,000 acres per year over the next four years. I told her I wouldn’t have a problem with that if they did it when they could manage the fire properly, but to try to do it with no preparation in mid August just because they had an ignition in the area made no sense to me. I advised her she should put this fire out immediately and wait for favorable weather to do the burning.

I called some friends in Featherville and asked if they were okay and how they felt about the fire. They said they were scared to death. The fire was on the ridge just above their house and they could see flames from their deck. They said the people on the river had been polite at the public meetings, but they did not know of anyone who agreed with letting this fire burn. They said they appreciated the Boise Forest because when the fire got onto the Boise, they jumped right onto it and stopped it. They said the Boise had offered to help the Sawtooth put the rest of the fire out, but the Sawtooth told them to go home. It should probably be noted here that what was reported as “a minor slop-over onto the Boise” was 3,000 acres and was the biggest fire on the Boise Forest this season.)

That night, a young man from Featherville called me. He said he had heard that I was pushing to get the Sawtooth to put the fire out. He pleaded with me to do everything I could to get them to stop it quickly. He offered to get signatures from everyone along the river on a petition to have the forest stop this one and never to let another one burn under similar conditions. I told him I was still hopeful that reason would return and the forest would take proper action without a petition.

I checked the progress of the fire every morning on the NIFC site. They updated the acres and the costs, but never once made any mention of the cost of damage to the watershed, scenic values, fish or wildlife habitat, timber, lost opportunities for recreation, or livestock forage.

I think the forest did a rather skillful job of avoiding a massive public outcry about this fire. The first thing they did was to close the entire area so no one could go see what was happening. As of September 25, the closure was still in effect except for the main road along the river. The few very scant news releases in the paper were obviously written to avoid any public reaction. They just quoted the acres burned and said the fire “is meeting resource objectives”. The matter of fact type of reporting gave the impression that this was just a normal part of the fire business. There never was any attention drawn to the fact that this was the largest and most destructive fire to burn in that area since the establishment of the Forest Service.

The fire management team hosted a reporter from the Boise paper and told him they were letting the fire burn so they could establish a mosaic pattern of vegetation which would be beneficial to wildlife and help fireproof the area for future fires. A little further in the article, they said there was a lot of unburned area within the fire because the vegetation tended to be in a mosaic pattern which didn’t carry fire solidly!

The team also told the reporter that people cannot put fires out. He said only mother nature can do that. The team’s other arguing point was that it is much cheaper to let fires burn than to put them out. They quoted a figure of $99 per acre to let one burn versus $3,000 per acre to put one out. Regardless of what the team told the reporter, the cost per acre on the South Barker fire was $187 as of September 19.

No matter what the average costs are, if you put it out when it is small, the cost will be small. If it burns a lot of acres, the bill will be big even if the cost per acre is low.

On August 25, we went to the regional retirees meeting in Boise. As part of the field trip there was a discussion of fire activities and the Boise forest reported on some of their let-burn fires from 2006 and 2007. The assessment of Ned Pence on the damage in the South Fork of the Salmon River on the Payette was that there has already been more siltation into the river from the fires there than from all of the logging and road building prior to now. He said he is sure the Chinook salmon will not be able to spawn in the river again in his lifetime or probably not in his son’s lifetime.

His observations were exactly in line with what I expect from the South Barker fire. I asked the Boise Supervisor to comment on at least the “slop over” from the South Barker fire. She really didn’t want to talk about it, but as we talked, she put a new level of fear into me. She said the Boise had not identified the area of the “slop-over” as a let-burn area, so they put it out. She said the Sawtooth had mapped an area of about 109,000 acres around the South Barker fire as a Maximum Management Area. She went on to say that as long as the fire stayed within that MMA, the Sawtooth would let it burn until snow flies.

That was the first time I had heard of anything of that size. It was about two orders of magnitude bigger than the 1,000 acre per year burn plan Jane had told me about. I wrote another e-mail to Jane asking how she was complying with NEPA for such a major federal action. I asked her if the 50 year old plantations in Marsh Creek and Shake Creek had burned. I asked her what the objectives are of letting the fire continue to burn.

She said she was relying on the Forest Plan for NEPA compliance. She did not respond to the question about the plantations or the objectives. I told her I did not agree that the forest plan provided project-level site specific NEPA Compliance.

A project of this size is a major federal action and should have the whole site specific analysis and disclosure with public involvement and Environmental Statement with a Record of Decision

On September 12, there was a mention of the South Barker fire in the weekly summary of major events that the Chief puts out. It finally spelled out what the objectives are. Listen carefully!

They want to “improve habitat for the white headed wookpecker which feeds mostly on pine seeds.” They want to improve habitat for the flammulated owl. The third objective is to maintain the old growth forest by eliminating the younger trees.

I looked up all the information I could find about that woodpecker and owl. Nothing I read indicated any preference for any particular age class of forest. The woodpecker is listed as locally common, feeding mostly on insects found in the bark of ponderosa pines and some pine seeds in the fall and winter. The literature also said it is almost never found outside the ponderosa pine zone in Idaho. I told Jane I thought live trees had more bark bracts and on them than dead ones and I have never seen a burned snag produce any seeds. I said I believe one acre of ponderosa pine can produce enough seed to feed millions of woodpeckers, so I doubt if lack of pine seed is a limiting factor.

The owl is almost never seen and, like all owls, is carnivorous. It eats mice and other small rodents and prefers pine and oak forests. I told Jane that unless she plans to replant the burned area to oak I could not see how the fire was going to benefit the owl.

I told Jane I thought these two species were really red herrings and she should be more concerned about the habitat she is destroying for the real fish which include the listed Bull Trout in Shake Creek, Willow Creek, and Skeleton Creek as well as the very popular rainbow trout fishery in the river.

I also told her that converting to old growth forest can’t work. It is like basing the hope for the future of our society on the longevity and wisdom of the people in the nursing home. Eventually the old trees will die no matter what is done and it would be nice to have some younger ones to help stabilize the soil and replace the old ones when they are gone.

I also pointed out that even if there had been some validity to the objectives in the ponderosa pine zone, the ugly fact remains that over 80% of the burn is not in the ponderosa pine type.

As of September 19, the South Barker fire had burned 37,583 acres and had cost $7,041,364. I still think it is a huge mistake. Forest Service retirees all over the country are adamant that this kind of burning should not continue. Some are considering court actions, some are recommending media blasting, some are working toward influencing politicians, and some, like me, still hope the Forest Service as an agency will somehow come to its senses and revise the policies so this kind of thing won’t continue to happen. Many influential retirees whom I respect very much have shared the opinion that if this situation is not corrected quickly, the Forest Service will not survive.

7 Oct 2008, 10:09am
by Bob Z.

Mr. Bradley:

Even if the USFS “comes to its senses” as you (and many of us) have hoped, it would not solve the underlying problems of mismanagement and purposeful misinformation you describe.

The dirty secret that is being covered up by the pseudo-science and double-speak of USFS officials is that they don’t have the capability to manage these fires. Even if they wanted to exercise common sense and good judgment, they don’t have the experience or ability to do so.

They are, however, diverse. And they seem to fervently believe that the American public is stupid and will believe almost anything. How about $10 million worth of flammulated owl habitat? Want to buy a bridge? It won’t cost a thing — we have taxpayers willing to pay.

7 Oct 2008, 11:33am
by Mike

I disagree. The USFS could have contained the South Barker Fire at less than 100 acres if they had wanted to. They could also have applied healthy land management treatments that would have precluded this and other megafires, if they had wanted to.

The sad truth is that the South Barker Fire was desired and planned for, with that process hidden from public review.

The USFS is burning our forests catastrophically on purpose. They are also destroying any trust or regard that the public may have once placed in them. In doing so they are quite deliberately ruining our public forests and their own agency.

The solution is a total housecleaning of the current leadership of the USFS and a renewed commitment to scientific stewardship.

7 Oct 2008, 12:41pm
by backcut

I have had direct experience in that area of Idaho. Way back in ‘83, I was a young punk working on my first engine out of Lester Creek Guard Station, south and west of Featherville on the Boise. It had been a very wet record winter, an equally wet spring and we had plenty of wet thunderstorms during that summer. In August, we finally started getting a few starts and we rolled on one close to where the South Barker Fire burned. The land was already a mosaic of big pines and thickets of ratty Doug-fir and “bull pine”. We quickly put a line around it and felled the tree at the origin. We caught it at about 5 acres and it did have a lot of potential, being at the midslope.

The eco’s will never accept hands-on management of our National Forests and we should not be trying to change THEIR closed minds. I think the public is now focused on the financial crisis and the money angle should be our main spearhead, right now. If we could estimate the “externals” of all the benefits and luxuries of a healthy managed forest, we could come up with a grand total of just how much these fires are costing the American public (and the rest of the world).

Another thing to tack on is the future value of those ecosystem services like fresh water, clean air, abundant wildlife and shady forests. Yes, I know it is hard to put a number on those things but we have to try. In 2030, how much will clean water cost? No wonder all those eco’s carry around their own personal commercial water sources, eh?

7 Oct 2008, 3:45pm
by Bob Z.


I think you’re on the right track! The ecos definitely do seem to be hooked on bottled water, while the rest of us (vast minority at this point) drink from creeks.

A small minority of USFS land visitors on Mt. Hood, for example, actually use Wilderness lands — but I’ll bet a large number of those visitors are carrying commercial water bottles!

How much bottled water is sold in the PNW? Thirty years ago, it was around $0. Today, it must be in the $10 millions. A statistical curve would be misleading, but freshwater value alone may be enough to pay back the entire $700 billion, if one is used.

In college we were asked the “value of a goose call.” Thousands of us have been trained to tease the answers to such economical questions out of the air. The methodology is reasonable, but the answer is invariably ridiculous. But it is, as you say, a start.

Where is the funding needed for a study of this nature? The organization(s) capable and willing to pull it off?

7 Oct 2008, 7:23pm
by backcut

Looking back on my last posting, I wasn’t clear and comprehensive enough. We can find out the staggering suppression costs easily enough and come up with some conservative estimates on all the rest of the many, many impacts from the fire, down the road. Of course, the suppression costs alone will make the average taxpayer wince. Just making up the “laundry list” of all the impacts of a 40,000 acre fire will be daunting.

We could also come up with a formula to calculate the individual taxpayer’s share of the suppression costs for a given fire, as well.

I think we have a collection of good minds here and I don’t think we should have to reinvent the wheel to have some ballpark figures. Essential to this would be a short statement explaining how we arrived at our estimates. Nothing too scientifically-dry, as our intended target needs to understand our point very clearly. Mike already has an excellent comprehensive series on the scientific aspects. Partner that with the gloomy financial outlook of our forest environments and we may just have a document that will speak to brainwashed Americans in a different language.


7 Oct 2008, 7:57pm
by Mike

I have written repeatedly about cost-plus-loss in determining the economic impacts of forest fires [here, here, here, and here, for instance].

As a rough rule of thumb, the economic losses from forest fires are 10 to 20 times the suppression costs. Using the approximate figure of $2 billion spent on fire suppression this year, the total economic losses are $20 to $40 billion.

However, considering that Congress just transferred $700 billion from the Treasury to Wall Street crooks, the cost-plus-loss from forest fires may not inspire them to take action. Indeed, the $400 to $600 million budget shortfall this year in the USFS, causing the cancellation of most projects and (in essence) the financial collapse of that agency, did not impress Congress one bit.

So your idea of wincing taxpayers, while well-meaning, may not work. I think the taxpayers are all winced out.

8 Oct 2008, 9:24am
by bear bait

Mike: Each fire having someone knowledgeable about the fire, contributing empirical data to a central site as to resource loss would build a case over time. How hard would it be to build a standard appraisal sheet for a fire? Most of the stuff would be pretty much covered in the fire status info: acres, vegetation type, watersheds, burn intensity, elevations. People smarter than I could add other blanks that needed filling. Old timber sale information from the area would show merch timber volume numbers. Like, who hasn’t stump cruised before? State Fish and Wildlife people can come up with pre-fire populations of species, as well as USFS NEPA, EIS documents showing biologist’s estimates pre-fire and post fire.

And the market has numbers to value stuff. Or court cases. Or govt. appraisal values. As for the “priceless” and aesthetic stuff, and the likes of lost opportunity, rebuilding trails costs, State fishery people’s assessment of aquatic habitat loss as well as species degradation. It can be done. And, if you are the only one doing it, your organization, it is pretty hard for USFS to impeach your data and findings, assessments. No way for them to win the “do you still beat your wife” argument that comes about with their having to bring forth a loss appraisal of their own, even if they get into some ephemeral discourse about future gains. You can poop in one hand and wish in the other… and their future gains theories can quickly be shown as wishing into one hand, while their fire has pooped in the other… you DO know which hand filled up first….

As for taxpayers being winced out, get used to it. I would think that good government and strict congressional oversight are going to be the norm in the near future…

8 Oct 2008, 9:55am
by Mike

bear and all,

I busted my tail to accumulate the daily stats from all the major fires this year, including costs. See WISE Fire Tracking.

I put all the daily data in one posting for each fire, for ease of data retrieval.

InciWeb doesn’t do that. InciWeb does not report costs and does not put the data in a useful format. Not to mention that InciWeb was dysfunctional for much of April through July.

WISE Fire Tracking is the central site for all that you suggest.

8 Oct 2008, 10:11am
by Bob Z.


I think that is exactly what bear bait is suggesting. But the site needs tweaking as much as taxpayers need wincing.

Put the data into a tabular format and add the categories that are being suggested. Only seek the expert economic input that you don’t personally have.

Organize the forms into State, County, and NF files.

Tell everyone what you are doing and why. Openly seek help from FWS, DEQ, etc., to help fill in the blanks the best they can. They are paid by us and have to help, by law.

Do a press release of the preliminary findings, making certain that government officials are on the list.

Announce your intentions now, and begin using WISE as the authoritative data collector and analysis dispenser.

It’s more work, but you’ve already got a great start and this would establish WISE as the primary source and authority on western US wildfire economics.

I think it’s a great idea.

8 Oct 2008, 11:04am
by Mike

I’m getting there. Big site makeover in the near future. Better search/sorting. And after that I will consolidate the fire data into graphs and tables for each fire.

Of course, it all takes time and money. Why don’t you be the marketer while I do the actual grunt work?

14 Oct 2008, 9:01am
by YPmule

Very informative story Glenn. Thank you for posting it Mike.

I agree with how the FS feeds a select media group that will report favorably (we have experienced that and cannot get the media to tell the truth).

I had been keeping track of the So. Barker fire this summer as best I could via the GACC reports (InciWeb has been remodeled and provides less info it seems, that is IF you can get the site to come up) and the tiny bits from the news media. I figured the real story was out there and not being told. Its funny how the media will report what the FS and the Idaho Conservation League puts out, but rarely will interview a local resident.

What we never see from the FS or the news media is the costs AFTER the fire. Loss of values of water, recreation, people’s health, loss of income from tourism, loss of habitat for fish and wildlife. Letting fire burn in unnatural fuel loading is not natural fire! You seldom hear of the aftermath, the roads washed out, streams silted and poor water quality, or even the inconvenience of power outages as snags take out the power lines.

We also never hear of salvage logging anymore - I think the FS is afraid to even mention the word “logging”. So these dead burned trees are then left to fall down and become future fuels for even worse fires.

Note to Mike - I will have a lot of time this winter if you need a “grunt” to help fill in the blanks with data when you are ready.

14 Oct 2008, 9:28am
by Mike

Site remodel coming along. Soon we will have new look. Then we can get back into a better coverage of all the issues. Sorry for the delay. Once in awhile I have to do something to earn a meager living, and it robs me of the time needed to maintain the steady (if not quality) content.

And yes, there will be more opportunities for others to grunt along with me. Your offer will not be ignored!



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