30 Oct 2008, 11:16am
Federal forest policy The 2008 Fire Season
by admin

South Barker Aftermath

We have previously posted about the South Barker WFU Fire [here, here, here, here, here]. Last week retired District Ranger and Forest Supervisor Glenn Bradley toured the South Barker Burn with personnel from the Sawtooth National Forest. This is his report:

by Glenn Bradley, USFS ret.

Several of you asked me to report back to you after I toured the South Barker Fire area with Forest Supervisor Jane Kollmeyer.

Actually, I have made two visits to the burn. Carolyn and I spent Saturday, October 18, looking at some of it. On Thursday, October 23, I went there with Jane and her people.

Before I start, I would like to say that I appreciate Jane’s willingness to meet me in the field and discuss various aspects of the fire. She was accompanied by District Ranger, Mike Dettori, Forest Public Information Officer, Alicia Bennett, and District Wildlife Biologist, David Skinner. By chance, we connected for a few minutes in the field with District Forester, Alan Young. All of them treated me politely and our discussions were open and candid.

We met first in the Fairfield District Office where we looked at maps showing the various intensities of burning, the area burned on different days, and the boundary line called the Maximum Management Area, which was drawn after the fire was allowed to burn to guide the fire team as the outside allowable perimeter of the fire. Two points came out that are significant. First, no prior project-level planning had been done except a proposal to burn 1,000 acres per year for four years in the Barker Gulch area and a decision in the revised Forest Plan that Wild Fire Use would be an option in that part of the forest. Second, was a statement to me by David that this had been by far the biggest thing that had ever happened to the district and it had been so all-consuming that no time had been available for any other work since the fire started.

We left for the field visit and our first stop was in Barker Gulch. I was surprised by several things. One was that the large trees seemed to burn about as readily as the younger ones. Another was that I was the only one in the group who was concerned about the burned-out riparian zone along the stream and the probable accelerated erosion which will occur from the steep granitic slopes left bare by the fire. Mike asked me why that concerned me and I told him I thought it was important to keep the streams running clear water and to not fill Anderson Ranch Reservoir with silt. He replied that those canyons were formed by water erosion and he viewed it as part of the natural process and it didn’t worry him much.

As we drove on up the river, I expressed concern that for three miles the entire hillside on the north side of the river was black with almost all of the trees killed. I told them that in the old Multiple Use Planning system, that would have been mapped as either “Water Influence Zone” or “Travel Influence Zone”. In those zones, recreation and scenic values would be considered dominant, and every effort would be made to protect the beauty of the area. In this case it is even more important because it is the foreground scenery to the Abbott, Chaparral, and Bird Creek Campgrounds. Mike said he agreed that it did not look very good, but in their panic in the early stages of the fire they had purposely back-burned that area to try to keep the fire within the MMA. He said in hindsight that it would have been better to let the fire back down those slopes with a cooler burn and less crowning. I suggested they should have considered some of those things before they decided to let the fire burn. It should be noted that, even though the meager news reports in the Twin Falls paper called it a creeping, underburning fire, it did a lot of crowning and even jumped the South Boise River near the mouth of Bird Creek and also burned 3000 acres outside the MMA in Cayuse and Little Cayuse Creeks.

The next area we looked at was in Marsh Creek. In 1959, I marked a large timber sale there. One of our objectives was to clean out some decadent stands of Douglas fir that were heavily infested with dwarfmistletoe and to replant with Ponderosa pine. Those plantations were established in 1962, and have grown very well. Further investments have been made in thinning them in recent years. I am very sorry to report that those plantations have sustained about 50% mortality according to Forest Service monitoring studies. A fellow who lives in Featherville wrote to me last night and expressed my feelings very well. He said he and his wife went to Marsh Creek the first day the road closure was lifted. He said he was glad they went alone because he doesn’t like for other people to see him cry.

In the 1959 timber sale, we saved some mature Ponderosa pines as seed trees in some of the units. I was surprised again to see some of those big trees completely charred from bottom to top even though they were not near any other large trees that could have carried fire up them. Some areas simply burned so hot that everything in them got cooked.

As we ate lunch looking into Cayuse Creek, we talked about what the area would look like in future years. We had very differing ideas. I said I would expect the areas that burned hot on the upper west slopes to have significant raw gullies.
Mike said he expected aspen to sprout in those places. There were aspen in the moist bottoms, but not on the dry, west-facing slopes. I’m still betting on the gullies.

Jane did some probing into my background in fire while we were eating. I told her I had been on some large fires, but I preferred to keep them small. For the record, under the old Red Card system, I held qualifications beginning as a Crewman and advancing to Crew Boss, Sector Boss, Division Boss, Line Boss II, and Line Boss I. I served on Class E fires in Idaho, Nevada, Utah, and California. South Barker was not my first exposure to large burned-over areas.

The road up Shake Creek was blocked at the second crossing. No burn was visible from there. I do know that the fire got from Marsh Creek to Willow Creek and Shake Creek is in between, so I expect the plantations in upper Shake Creek are no better off than those in Marsh Creek. Carolyn and I walked into the burn in Willow Creek on October 18 and saw long steep slopes completely denuded by the fire as well as burned out riparian areas along the creek with ash and debris in the stream.

From Willow Creek on up the river, the fire only burned in the upper portions of the drainages, so most of it is not visible from the road. The down sides of that fact are that the heads of the drainages have the most fragile soils and there was no need to burn them for fuel reduction.

After spending the whole day, it was not clear to me why they wanted to let this fire burn. Other than a brief private visit with Dave about woodpeckers and owls, there was no mention from Jane or Mike about the objectives centered on those species. All three objectives stated by the Chief related to the Ponderosa pine type, but 80% of the burn was outside the Ponderosa pine type.

I believe the potential of the fire was grossly underestimated from the beginning. It was first reported as “slight potential to spread”. Mike said that after the first few days of the fire, he thought it might run to 10,000 acres and cost 1.5 million dollars. I detected no feeling of failure from the resource loss or from the fact that they burned 37,000 acres and spent over 7 million dollars.

Neither Mike nor Jane knew if they had complied with Idaho DEQ smoke management requirements. Although people along the river told me they were choked by smoke from about 1:00 AM to about 2:00PM each day and it was not possible to see well enough to run boats on Anderson Ranch Reservoir during those hours, Mike said there were only a few days that it was severe enough to be hazardous to health, so he didn’t think it was too bad. When I told him that the smoke in Sawtooth Valley had practically precluded recreation use there for several days, there was no response.

I detected no real concern about the fact that all recreation use along the river was curtailed for about two months. The only comment Jane made was that if the campgrounds had been concession-operated, they would not have let the fire burn because the concessionaire may have sued them for lost income.

While some small areas within the burn may have benefited from the reduction of fuels, the natural character of the vegetation in the burned area was a mosaic pattern with drastic changes from aspect to aspect without continuous fuel that needed broken up. An objective to reduce fuel loading could only be justified in spotty areas within the early part of the burn.

No mention was made of the expected changes the fire would cause to the grazing permittees, but it did burn on at least one sheep allotment.

We met District Forester, Alan Young, in Marsh Creek. He was working with burn intensity maps to determine which areas of the plantations needed to be replanted. I asked him how he would finance the reforestation efforts. He said they would get fire money to do that. (Is there something wrong with this picture? You burn it on purpose with money you don’t have, and then you get more money to replant it!) I asked him how he would feel if he got it all replanted and tended it for fifty years and then some Ranger decided to burn up his plantation. He didn’t respond.

Near the end of the day, I pursued the issue of NEPA compliance with Jane. She said it is impossible to do the kind of analysis and public involvement required by NEPA because there was no time between the ignition and the decision. I believe that is a cop out. I do not buy the excuse that it is “natural”. Whether a forest officer starts a fire or simply lets one burn, I believe he or she is responsible for it. There is no question in my mind that it qualifies as a major federal action. If the NEPA compliance work was not complete, the fire should not have been allowed to burn.

Relying on lightning to ignite fires, even where a decision has been made to do some burning, guarantees that it will come as a surprise and at a time when the people involved are less than fully prepared. It would be much smarter to do burning projects by lighting the fire at a time and under conditions when results can be predicted.

Letting fires burn in the peak of the fire season ties up resources that are needed for “real fires”. Letting fires burn for long periods of time in mid-summer assures that there will be days of high winds or other dangerous weather. Letting a fire burn for a long time in fire season impairs visibility so that “real” fires might not be discovered while they are small.

Landscape type fires cannot be controlled to do what is needed. If they are too big to handle, they will do as they will.

Letting fires burn when there is no fire money robs all other programs of funds and infuriates the congress. They are less inclined to fund fire management if they know money is being needlessly spent on purpose.

If there are any benefits to the South Barker Fire, they are minimal and questionable. There is no denying of the fact that a lot of area is damaged and a lot of money was spent. I still believe letting this fire burn was at least a 7 million dollar mistake. The lack of concern about accelerated erosion is troubling to me. I have watched this country gradually heal up over the last 60 years from severe damage done by heavy grazing and trailing of sheep in the early 1900’s. It took a giant step backwards this summer.

I hope the Forest Service will change the policy so that intentional burning will be done on a planned, rational, legal, and controllable basis, rather than the “Flying by the Seat of the Pants” way that South Barker and a number of other WFU fires have been handled lately.

30 Oct 2008, 12:32pm
by Bob Z

I agree fully with Glenn Bradley’s conclusions and have complete sympathy with his observations.

I have watched with some sadness many of the reforestation projects I was responsible for become clearcuts after only 25-35 years. But I did have the satisfaction of knowing that those plantations and thinnings resulted in meaningful jobs, useful products, and did not damage or degrade the local environment the way that wildfires do.

The distinction between lightning caused fires and human-set fires is critically important and should not be overlooked.

Information and estimates provide in past WISE postings is supported by the scientific literature: the multiplier for wildfire cost is — at minimum — 10 to 20 times the cost of suppression. That is, the $7 million spent on suppressing South Barker Fire represents a total cost of — at least — $70 to $140 million to US taxpayers.

The intangible losses to wildlife and local residents of the area only make these decisions and rationales by USFS employees more indefensible.

Thanks to Glenn Bradley and WISE for drawing attention to these concerns.

30 Oct 2008, 7:04pm
by Forrest Grump

Sounds like USFS people need to get out more. Has Kollmeyer scheduled any public field trips?

I guess the absolute impossibility of timber sales has caused such a loss of institutional memory that nobody is left who remembers when trees meant revenue for forestry, when wood was an economic product important to the surrounding communities’ well-being.


Thanks, Glenn.



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